Seventeen years ago I made a song, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.” I flipped the Latin phrase that is considered the bedrock principle of our criminal justice system, ei incumbit probatio qui dicit (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies). If you’re from neighborhoods like the Brooklyn one I grew up in, if you’re unable to afford a private attorney, then you can be disappeared into our jail system simply because you can’t afford bail. Millions of people are separated from their families for months at a time — not because they are convicted of committing a crime, but because they are accused of committing a crime.
Scholars like Ruthie Gilmore, filmmakers like Ava Duvernay, and formerly incarcerated people like Glenn Martin have all done work to expose the many injustices of the industry of our prison system. Gilmore’s pioneering book, The Golden Gulag, Duvernay’s documentary 13th and Martin’s campaign to close Rikers focus on the socioeconomic, constitutional and racially driven practices and polices that make the U.S. the most incarcerated nation in the world.
But when I helped produce this year’s docuseries, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, I became obsessed with the injustice of the profitable bail bond industry. Kalief’s family was too poor to post bond when he was accused of stealing a backpack. He was sentenced to a kind of purgatory before he ever went to trial. The three years he spent in solitary confinement on Rikers ultimately created irreversible damage that lead to his death at 22. Sandra Bland was also forced to post bail after her minor traffic infraction in Prairie View, Texas, led to a false charge of assaulting a public servant (the officer who arrested her was later charged with perjury regarding the arrest). She was placed in a local jail in a pre-incarcerated state. Again, she was never convicted of a crime. On any given day over 400,000 people, convicted of no crime, are held in jail because they cannot afford to buy their freedom.