I am Kalief Browder.
No, seriously. I am him and he is me. We’re each other. In fact, saying that I’m Mr. Browder does him a disservice because he was a much better kid than I was.
Compared to Mr. Browder I was a terror. At the age of 13, I was already in the streets indulging in a life of illegality, mostly revolving around dealing drugs.
At 16, Mr. Browder was apprehended and charged with robbery for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was facing 15 years if convicted.
Eventually the Bronx district attorney dropped all charges and Browder was freed. Nonetheless, the damage was already done. Browder had been placed at one of the most notorious lockups for about 800 days, where he suffered tremendously at the hands of correction officers and older inmates.
While incarcerated he tried to take his own life numerous times. And being released didn’t end his struggles. In November 2013, six months after being freed from Rikers, he was hospitalized again following another failed suicide attempt.
On June 6, 2015, after allegedly telling his mother he couldn’t take it anymore, Kalief Browder used an air conditioning cord to hang himself out of his Bronx apartment.
At such a young age, I didn’t have the mental capacity to comprehend the severity of the dangers in my life. Studies have shown that human brains are not fully developed until a person reaches 25. If you place any child in a toxic environment, it’s going to have a lasting and, in Browder’s case, a fatal effect.
In June 2012, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative won a landmark decision in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to die in prison, in part, because their brains are still works in progress.
It is a fact: Their brains are under construction. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, cited the “distinctive attributes of youth” that must be taken into consideration during sentencing.
Some of the attributes Kagan referred to include: limited maturity, underdeveloped sense of responsibility, desire for instant gratification and vulnerability to negative influences — especially when such influences are in a child’s home.
Many things that my 26-year-old mind senses intuitively — things that adults just think of as common sense — teenage minds are simply too underdeveloped to grasp.
New York is one of the only two states in this nation that refuses to recognize such crucial factors. Along with North Carolina, my home state continues to try kids as adults and send them to adult prisons, willfully ignoring the science of the juvenile brain.
As of today, there are thousands of kids incarcerated in adult prisons. These kids, these thousands of Kalief Browders, will never get the chance or the help they need to become productive members of society.
Between the ages of 13 to 15, I was regularly arrested, mostly for minor offenses similar to what brought Browder to Rikers Island. I grew up in an unforgiving environment that was plagued by toxicity.
Growing up, my role models were drug dealers, rappers and athletes. That was all I knew. I didn’t know any working professionals until I got into the system and began to meet them and read about them. I had no educational foundation, and I was inevitably going to end up dead or in prison for life.
The Class D felony that forced Judge Mary O’Donoghue to sentence me occurred a few months shy of my 16th birthday. Fortunately, I was placed in a juvenile justice facility — Boys Town — where the focus was rehabilitation, not punishment.
I needed structure, counseling, education, mentoring and caring adults such as Iza and Damon, the parent teachers who lived there. They focused on helping me even when I made things extremely difficult for them.
Kalief Browder should have had many more chances than I did, especially since he never even committed a crime. His only crime was being poor and black in America.
However, the young man was brutalized in every way possible. He didn’t take his own life. The prosecutor, judge, guards and the system took it from him.
All the Kalief Browders out there didn’t choose the circumstances they were born into. Our society stripped a young man of his humanity simply because he was young, poor and black.
I am the co-founder of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, Inc. (PLOT), a nonprofit mentoring organization that provides mentors to justice-involved and at-risk youth. I also work with youth in the juvenile justice system.
Along with working on the campaign to raise the age for nonviolent youth offenders, I most recently participated in the President’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing alongside many prominent political leaders. One of the recommendations I made was the need for the New York Police Department to abolish the quota system that incentivizes arrests like the one that landed Mr. Browder at Rikers Island.
New York state has a responsibility to raise the age so we will never have another Kalief Browder. Everyone is responsible for what occurred to this young man and we owe it to his memory to improve the conditions for the thousands of Kalief Browders out there.
A society is only as strong as its most vulnerable people. By that marker, we’re an extremely feeble-minded society. Every child deserves the same chances I was afforded during my darkest days. If we don’t offer that to each and every child, regardless of race or economic status, then we are doomed to witness Mr. Browder’s death again and again. And we will be responsible.
Jim St. Germain is a juvenile justice advocate and the co-founder of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, a nonprofit mentoring organization.