By David Brand
In the days since Council Member Rory Lancman and Queens Senior Executive Assistant District Attorney James Quinn debated about the future of Rikers Island, a specific exchange about Kalief Browder has garnered national attention.
While defending the proposal to close jails on Rikers Island and open four “borough-based” jails, Lancman — a potential candidate in the 2019 Queens DA race — frequently described how the bail system keeps low-income defendants in detention simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.
He cited the experience of Browder, a 16-year-old from the Bronx who was arrested for stealing a backpack and held on Rikers for three years — including two in solitary confinement — because he could not afford to pay his $3,000 bail. Ultimately, Browder’s C Felony charges were dismissed.
Two years after his release from Rikers, Browder committed suicide.
Quinn took issue with what he called the Browder “narrative” that has informed much of the debate about closing Rikers. Browder’s experience has become a symbol of a broader movement to reform the criminal justice system and end the mass incarceration of low-income people of color.
“Kalief Browder committed suicide two years after leaving Rikers,” Quinn said.
Several people in the audience applauded, to which Lancman declared his disgust.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand what people are clapping about,” Lancman said, adding that those who applauded should search “the dark place” within themselves.
Lancman said Browder’s mental health issues, which ultimately contributed to his suicide, were exacerbated by his years in solitary confinement.
The debate and the heated exchange about Browder were first reported by the Queens Daily Eagle last Thursday. The story garnered national attention when The Appeal, a national news outlet focused on the criminal justice system, reported on the exchange about Browder’s death.
On World Suicide Prevention Day, Monday, Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society called on Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to condemn the remarks made by Quinn on behalf of his office.
Luongo criticized Brown for not addressing the comments “where his deputy attempted to downplay the devastating effects that Rikers Island had on Kalief Browder.”
“It reflects a mindset of indifference towards those in our city’s jails — many of whom are detained because of unaffordable bail amounts and excessive charges levied by prosecutors — New Yorkers who are brutalized by staff, and subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, and who are struggling with depression and other mental illness,” Luongo said.
Brown did provide a response in a statement to the Queens Daily Eagle Tuesday.
“At a debate that was supposed to focus on whether Rikers should be repaired or replaced, Councilman Lancman chose to inject the tragic death of Kalief Browder,” Brown said. “ADA James Quinn sought to correct the narrative that had been put forth but in no way minimized the tragedy. ADA Quinn noted that Mr. Browder did not commit suicide while in Rikers, but did so two years after his release. He also noted that Mr. Browder would not have been released even if his bail had been posted, because he was also being held on a violation of probation charge. Attempts to distort, ADA Quinn’s words and their meaning are only intended to cloud the underlying issues.”
Brown also defended Quinn’s record as a “career prosecutor with more than 40 years of experience.”
“He is very well-regarded by his colleagues here in New York City and beyond,” Quinn said. “He began the debate last week by saying that we agree Rikers should be improved and upgraded, but that the current city plan is wasteful, would disrupt the criminal justice system and local neighborhoods for years to come and would delay any reform efforts for years. The same result could be achieved faster and for far less money by building a world-class prison system on Rikers. It is unfortunate that Mr. Lancman chose to inject the tragic death of this young man into a debate over a topic — the rebuilding of our prisons — that deserves far more attention than misleading and emotionally-charged sound bites.”
In a statement, Lancman told the Eagle that Browder’s detention and tragic death are symptoms of a flawed justice system that disproportionately detains low-income people of color in jails and prisons in New York and nationwide.
“The tragedy of Kalief Browder reflects the tragedy that is our broken criminal justice system, where thousands of people — almost all of them people of color — are criminalized for minor offenses or sit in jail solely for want of bail money just to have their day in court,” Lancman said. “Denying Kalief’s tragedy is to deny the burning, urgent need to fix our criminal justice system, and the responsibility of District Attorneys to lead the way in doing so.”