Kalief Browder’s brother pushes speedy trial reform in Albany

TimesUnion

Akeem Browder watched his brother go to 38 court appearances over a three-year period.

As a 16-year-old, Kalief Browder was arrested in New York City for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island, where he remained for three years — two of them in solitary confinement — without ever facing an actual trial.

He was released just days after his 20th birthday.

“Kalief was not a blip in the system, it’s how the system runs,” Akeem Browder said in an interview. “We have people coming home that (have been) falsely assessed or diagnosed as (having) mental psychosis or paranoid schizophrenia. Meanwhile, it’s just from the trauma they’re suffering on Rikers and other facilities like Rikers. They wouldn’t go through this PTSD and have these symptoms of PTSD if they were given their chance to at least have their day in court.”

Akeem Browder was in Albany Monday to lobby for legislation named after his brother that’s aimed at reducing undue trial delays.

The state’s speedy trial statute focuses on prosecutorial readiness — that is, when prosecutors simply say they are ready for trial — rather than commencing a trial within a certain number of days.

The Browder bill would toughen up the rules that allow judges to set the deadlines by which prosecutors have to state that they’re ready to proceed to trial. Often referred to as the “trial clock,” the system currently excludes certain periods of time due to factors such as court congestion from the length of time allowed for prosecutorial preparation. As a result, the clock often remains effectively stopped for months or longer.

Under the proposed bill, judges would have the power to determine whether a period of adjournment following a defendant’s court appearance is to be included or excluded from the trial clock.

While criminal justice advocates say the bill is not a cure-all, Gabriel Sayegh of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice said it represents a step toward ideal reform.

Yet “Kalief’s Law” has languished at the Capitol, despite receiving overwhelming bipartisan support in the Assembly. It was introduced shortly after Browder’s suicide at age 22 in 2015.

It has never come up for a vote in the state Senate. Sponsor Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Brooklyn, filed a motion earlier this month to require the Senate Codes Committee to vote on the bill in April.

Asked on his way out of a Monday meeting with the governor and other legislative leaders Monday afternoon if reforms to the speedy trial statute were being discussed, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan replied, “None that I’m aware of.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget includes appropriation authority necessary to provide funding to get trials on a speedier track, as well as $100,000 for research and development of administrative guidance to ensure right to a speedy trial. But actual changes to statute are subject to ongoing budget negotiations.

The new fiscal year begins Saturday. Negotiations are ongoing.

Statutory changes would not directly address the backlog of cases in some criminal courts. Consider the Bronx, where Browder was arrested: The borough has come under fire for long wait times and is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed last year.

The trial delays that have plagued that borough are so bad that Chief Judge Janet DiFiore chose the Bronx as the location to deliver her sstate of the judiciary address in February, in which she outlined a number of court reforms, including speedy trail improvements.

“Here we are in one of the state’s largest criminal courthouses, where we can see, first-hand, how everyone suffers when justice is delayed — crime victims and their families, as they wait for justice to be done; prosecutors and their cases, as key witnesses move away, memories fade and evidence grows stale; and defendants, presumed innocent under the law, who must return to court over and over again or, too often, sit in jail waiting for their cases to be resolved because they can’t make bail or get a prompt trial,” she said.

Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe, president of the state District Attorneys Association, said in a statement that the group remains “fundamentally opposed to any bill that would allow a guilty defendant to escape prosecution merely because the state has failed to provide sufficient resources to to the criminal courts.”

“This includes sufficient funds for judges, prosecution and defense attorneys alike,” Zugibe continued. “Until all parts of the criminal justice system are fully funded a statute like this would not work. Further the costs associated with complying with the mandates in this bill including discovery and transporting defendants to every court appearance to consent to an adjournment will delay cases even more in an overburdened system.”

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