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Suicide of teen wrongfully imprisoned for 3 years underscores problems of legal system

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NEW YORK — From Mayor Bill de Blasio to civil rights advocates to local residents, many people are mourning the death of Kalief Browder, 21, calling his passing, by suicide, not only a personal tragedy, but also an awful example of grave shortcomings in the legal system.  Browder had been, he'd long maintained, innocent of a minor crime that ended up sending him to jail for three years, beginning when he was 16.

Browder's death has renewed calls for reforms in laws regarding the incarceration of minors, the payment of bail and treatment of underage inmates.

The crime for which Browder was accused was minor, the theft of another teen's backpack.  In an appearance on the PIX11 Morning News last year, Browder explained how, despite there being no firm evidence against him, he was given $10,000 bail, which his family couldn't afford.  So he was sent to Rikers Island to await trial, because he insisted that he was innocent.

"It was the most difficult decision of my life," Browder said during the interview with his attorney, Paul Prestia, last year.  Browder said that by insisting on trial, he was "missing school, working...  I was being abused, [but] I had to maintain my innocence."

Of the three years he would end up staying behind bars due to delay after delay in the court schedule, he would spend two of them in solitary confinement.

During that time, he endured significant abuse, including a beating by a corrections officer, recorded in a surveillance video. "It was more than hell," Browder told PIX11 News. "The c.o.'s were worse than the inmates," he said, referring to the corrections officers in charge of keeping order at Rikers.

His fellow inmates attacked him, as well.  Ten of them brutalized Browder after he hit back when an alleged gang leader spat in his face.  It all happened behind bars while he was still in his teens, leaving him in desperation.

He said in his PIX11 Morning News interview that he'd tried to take his life "three or four times at Rikers" because "after months of certain things you go through depression."

He said that while he was incarcerated, he repeatedly asked for mental health services.  "Nobody would give me any kind of assistance [or] anything."

This past weekend, a year and a half after he was released when prosecutors dropped the charges against him, Kalief Browder succeeded in taking his own life.

"It's no surprise that psychological and irreparable damage hapened at the hands of the system," said Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union in an interview on Monday afternoon.

Her organization has fought for years to restrict anyone 18 or under from being held in adult prisons for years.  But the NYCLU also calls for further changes to the New York legal system that may reduce the occurrence of cases like Kalief Browder's significantly.

The organization is requesting that lawmakers require non-adult cases to be prosecuted in family court, rather than in civil court.  The change would give families like Browder's access to the extensive system of support in the family court system that's not available in the civil court system.

The NYCLU also supports a bail fund proposal that's currently being advanced by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.  It would create a pool of money from which families that can prove indigence could borrow money to pay for bail for their loved ones.

Both of the proposals would require government devoting greater financial support to the legal system, an action the NYCLU also advocates.  Lieberman said that the concept is fairly straightforward.

"Many politicians have been saying 'black lives matter,'" she told PIX11 News.  "If black lives matter," she continued, "we can't allow the system to brutalize the  people thery're supposed to protect."

One of the politicians to whom she referred is Mayor De Blasio.  His administration banned inmates under the age of 19 from being held in solitary confinement, and his office released a statement Monday morning:  “Chirlane and I are deeply saddened by the death of Kalief Browder. Yesterday, the Browder family lost a beloved son and brother. Kalief's story helped inspire our efforts on Rikers Island, where we are working to ensure no New Yorkers spend years in jail waiting for their day in court. There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal, and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need. On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time.”