Meet the Woman Leading the Charge Against Bail Reform in New York

Meet the Woman Leading the Charge Against Bail Reform in New York

Meet the Woman Leading the Charge Against Bail Reform in New York

The murder of her son radicalized Madeline Brame. Now, the right has embraced her as the muse of the movement to quash the most progressive bail reform law in the US.

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On a cool spring morning outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in the Bronx, Madeline Brame stood before a pair of TV news microphones and cleared her throat. “This is my son, Sergeant Hason Correa,” she said, directing the cameras’ attention to the large poster she held of a man in military fatigues, a photo from when he served in the war in Afghanistan. The rally of around 25 people was made up mostly of friends and collaborators who stood behind her. Four years ago, she said, when her son was 35, “Hason was kicked, punched, stomped, and stabbed nine times by four people he did not know, nor had he done any harm.” The knife stroke that killed him plunged straight through his chest, piercing his heart.

Wesley “Wes” Correa, Brame’s ex-husband and Hason’s father, was stabbed 10 times in the same incident. Three of the alleged perpetrators were being held in the correctional facility on Rikers Island. But since the New York State Legislature passed bail reform in 2019, the fourth person, a woman named Mary Saunders, Brame told the cameras, “has been free on bail for over two-and-a-half years, home with her family.” At this, she paused for several moments. When she spoke again, she was louder, more assured.

“You see, I’m not politically correct,” declared Brame, now 60. “I want to speak directly to the Black and brown community: When are Black lives gonna start mattering to Black people?”

The crowd cheered.

That day’s rally kicked off retired police lieutenant Sammy Ravelo’s 140-mile walkathon from the Bronx to the state capitol in Albany—a demonstration, sponsored by 10 New York–based groups, against the 2019 bail reform law. The New York State statute is among the most progressive in the country, abolishing cash bail for a slew of misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes while mandating that judges consider affordability and prioritize release in cases where bail can be imposed. (Governor Kathy Hochul and former Governor Andrew Cuomo have both added to the list of offenses for which judges can set bail—among them, certain violent crimes and gun crimes).

The movement for bail reform was born out of the understanding that people shouldn’t be held in jail before trial because they lack access to wealth. At its inception, bail was meant to act as a financial incentive to “make sure folks come back to court,” said Krystal Rodriguez, policy director at the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College. In practice, however, it became a sort of pretrial punishment—nearly half a million people held in US jails haven’t been convicted of a crime. The movement gained traction throughout the country over the past decade after a series of high-profile cases in which innocent people were held in jail for years, and culminated before the pandemic with a proliferation of laws and programs aimed at reducing that outcome. Then, as if on cue, the right latched onto public safety as a rallying cry.

To date, there are no studies linking bail reform to a rise in crime anywhere in the United States, and an analysis by the state released earlier this year showed that only 2 percent of bail offenses in New York had led to rearrests on violent felonies. But Ravelo, who ran for Bronx Borough president last year on the Conservative Party line, told the crowd that bail reform was “a Band-Aid” on an open wound. Violent crime was up, he said; people were dying, and the specter of repeat offenders, released without bail, was terrorizing the community. In seven days, Brame and a legion of others would take charter buses to meet Ravelo in Albany and rally again. Before embarking on his walk, Ravelo dedicated his journey to Brame and her son, proclaiming, “She’s the queen of the movement.”

As the midterms drew near, Republicans and conservative Democrats pounced on bail reform as the reason for a rise in violent crime in New York City, and Brame became a prominent spokesperson for their crusade. Their logic: If you release someone accused of a crime—any crime—without any deterrent against committing another one, you risk unleashing a mob of unapologetic criminals. Their solution: the return of the old bail system, and more policing.

Brame’s willingness to link her son’s devastating story to bail reform is a godsend for lawmakers and candidates who have staked their political campaigns on fighting reform. When progressives ask them to back up their tough-on-crime stance with data, they can deflect with her testimony, which is more visceral than any statistic. “It’s a very tragic story that really hits home,” said Patrick McManus, chairman of the Bronx County Conservative Party. Brame purportedly brought him to tears when she spoke at a rally in front of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office. “I’m not a very spiritual person, but I saw something come over her. A spirit comes over Madeline when she speaks of her son.”

Brame was not always an activist. She says her son’s death was the “catalyst” for her journey into right-wing politics. Brame has repeatedly appeared on Fox News to discuss how bail reform is “rewarding” her son’s killer and has been the subject of a number of New York Post articles. Earlier this year, she spoke with former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani on his podcast,  Common Sense, scrutinizing the use of violence in rap music and what she described as the demise of the Black nuclear family—both of which, in her view, have led to an epidemic of Black-on-Black crime. Most recently, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin has drawn on her story to outline his “Pathways Up” plan for low-income, largely Black communities. In early October, he invited Brame to attend a press conference in Harlem where he proposed the “Hason Correa Small Business Incubator Initiative,” a public-private partnership intended to increase entrepreneurship in low-income communities.

When the cameras were gone that day in the Bronx, Brame withdrew to the outskirts of the crowd. She seemed exhausted. For too long, she told me, the scale of justice has tipped in favor of criminals, leaving victims like her to suffer “without a voice.” If criminal justice reform purports to right historical wrongs against the culprits, victims “don’t know where to turn to for help,” she said.

Brame’s complicated story illustrates how a search for catharsis can blur the differences between justice and revenge. It also shows how tough-on-crime policies can attract unlikely supporters in low-income Black communities—and, as voters head to the polls, how criminal justice reform’s conservative opponents are only too happy to exploit tragic stories like Brame’s for their own ends.

On October 20, 2018, at around 2 am, Brame got the call from her daughter-in-law: her son was dead. Stabbed to death.

Hysterical, Brame ran and caught a taxi to the Harlem Hospital Center on Malcolm X Boulevard. When she arrived, she wasn’t allowed to see Hason’s body; he was already in the hospital’s freezer.

Hason’s father, Wes Correa, remained in the hospital for six weeks with severe injuries. Correa declined to tell anyone his side of what happened; even today, he refuses to cooperate with investigators and does not want to testify, a decision that the defense implies in court documents amounts to an admission of fault. Still, details slowly trickled out from the police, tabloids, and, eventually, court documents.

According to these documents, security camera footage showed, at 10:31 pm, Hason and Correa “repeatedly punch, kick, and strike” a man named Gene Crews with a liquor bottle after an argument. Crews, “angry and bleeding,” then fled across the street, where his neighbors—Travis Stewart and Christopher, James, and Mary Saunders, all siblings—were hanging out. Hason and his father went upstairs to an apartment. After 10 minutes, they came back down. Hason stored a pistol from his waistband in a nearby flower box.

Another argument—the men were again in each other’s faces. Hason punched James Saunders in the face, knocking him to the ground. Stewart retaliated, punching Correa in the face, also knocking him to the ground. Hason tried to run away, but he was pursued by the three Saunders siblings. James wielded a knife.

The siblings encircled Hason. Court documents indicate that James stabbed and beat him while his siblings kicked him on the ground. When Correa tried to step in and stop the attack, he was stabbed 10 times. Hason was stabbed nine times—in the head, torso, stomach, leg, and heart. Using his last bit of life, he broke free and ran to retrieve the pistol from the flower box. The suspects fled.

Immediately after, Hason succumbed to the wound to his heart, collapsed, and died. The confrontation lasted approximately three minutes.

Ten days later, Mary Saunders turned herself in. Stewart turned himself in one week after her, while the Saunders brothers were both apprehended by police in the spring of 2019, around the same time the New York State Legislature voted to eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes, effective in 2020. The three men have each been held without bail. For Mary, bail was initially set at $750,000. But unlike the other defendants, she had no prior offenses. With a daughter at home, she was not deemed a flight risk, and 23 friends, family, and coworkers wrote character reference letters to the judge on her behalf. Her lawyer successfully appealed for a reduction in bail, down to $10,000, in accordance with “recent reform,” which accounts for affordability, and also happens to be the median cost of bail for felonies nationwide. Mary’s family raised the money by pooling their tax refunds.

For Brame, this reduction—though not elimination—of Mary’s bail amounted to a betrayal: “She’s free to come and go like she didn’t just participate in the slaughter of another human being,” she said. Yet Michael Rempel, director of the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College, said that even before bail reform, New York judges have had discretion to reduce bail after an initial hearing in violent cases. And “historically,” he added, “judges have been especially receptive to bail reduction arguments if the defense can argue there’s been a change of circumstances.”

In May, Mary accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to one year in jail, but because she’d already spent 14 months in Rikers, she was released. One month later, Travis Stewart accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to seven years. James Saunders pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree gang assault, with a minimum of a 20-year sentence. At the time of publication, Christopher Saunders’s trial is ongoing.

At the October press conference in Harlem, where Lee Zeldin invited Brame to stand next to him as he announced his proposal for the Hason Correa Small Business Incubator Initiative, Dion Powell, a Black conservative activist and Brame’s friend, felt like his stomach was churning. “I get more disgusted day by day with this,” he said. While Powell supports Zeldin, to him the optics were all wrong. With the exception of the occasional heckler, the windswept crowd behind the camera was too white. Without visible Black supporters, Powell feared the “message” wouldn’t translate for Black voters.

“Did you speak?” Powell asked Brame after she stepped away from Zeldin.

Brame shrugged. “He spoke for me,” she said. Although Zeldin had misidentified Hason as her husband in his speech, to Brame his proposal still represented a consecration of her son’s legacy. “I hope it’s not contingent on him winning,” she said. “Suppose he doesn’t—we’re still gonna do it.”

In his announcement, Zeldin had mentioned North Bellport—part of a village of around 1,900 on Long Island with a historically Black population—saying that nobody, “Republicans or Democrats,” campaigned there because they assumed their votes were spoken for. The result: “Communities that need help the most” are ignored.

Zeldin’s shout-out to North Bellport resonated with Brame, and not only because she agreed with his message. The town happens to be where Brame grew up; it’s where her path to becoming a crusader against bail reform began.

Like most towns across the country, Bellport was segregated. A set of railroad tracks divided rich whites and middle-class Black people on one side, and poor, primarily Black and brown families on the other. Brame’s family was among the middle class. “We were taught, don’t even go near the tracks,” she said. As a child, when she asked why, Brame remembers her mother answering with a laundry list of reasons: drugs, violence, crime, welfare—moral failings, all, according to her mother.

Her mother’s stern orders created a forbidden want within her: She was tantalized by the other side of the tracks, she told me, until she finally made the leap. Of her six siblings, she was the only one not to go either to college or the military. Instead, she ran away with her boyfriend, Wes Correa, who signed with a professional basketball team in Puerto Rico. Soon they had Hason.

In 1988, after Correa failed a doping test, he and Brame broke up, and Hason was taken from her custody. She moved to Harlem at the height of the crack epidemic. She sold drugs, cooked crack herself, and fell headfirst into the criminal justice system, landing in jail after relapsing seven times. Her memory of the 1990s is peppered with time in prison.

“When I first started getting arrested, I had my whole family wrapped around my finger,” Brame said. They visited her constantly. Her mom even sent an allowance. But after repeated offenses sent her back to prison, “My mother said, ‘Wait a minute: You must like it.’”

When Brame’s family stopped visiting, she turned inward. She read the Bible from cover to cover—twice—just to pass the time. Though numerous studies have shown that incarcerating people for drug-related offenses has little impact on rates of substance abuse, Brame said she believes that the tough-on-crime policies that incarcerated her for almost a decade, in tandem with her mom’s tough love, actually made a difference in helping her turn her life around. By 2000, Brame was out of prison and stable enough to reunite with Hason, who moved in with her after graduating high school. In her view, she wouldn’t have had a chance to mother him again if prison hadn’t set her straight.

Brame is critical of mass incarceration; she pins much of the blame on Biden and the Clinton administration’s passage of the 1994 crime bill, which radically increased the number of people in prison. “They would lock people up for minor things,” she told me. “And they never get out of the system.” But at the same time, she holds something akin to nostalgia for Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as mayor and George Pataki’s as governor. If she looks at herself as a case study, she believes their policies worked.

In her search for answers after Hason’s death, Brame went online to brush up on history. She came to believe that Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty was a farce that had expanded welfare to subjugate Black people, forcing them to rely on the state, rather than their own families, to survive. This version of events made sense to her—what had the Democrats done for her, for Hason? She also discovered Candace Owens, a Black conservative pundit who once said police brutality is “not a major issue facing Black Americans today.” According to Owens, the problem is Black-on-Black crime.

Through Owens, Brame discovered the New York State chapter of Blexit, a national foundation Owens established in 2018 that encourages Black people to leave the Democratic Party, among other things. Arthur Roldan, a New York police officer recently named in a Civilian Complaint Review Board letter noting “abuse of authority” against Black Lives Matter protesters, founded Blexit’s New York chapter in 2020. Brame took over as state director in 2021 and says they have approximately 600 members statewide.

For Brame, bail reform is something like a mousetrap—one she sees unfolding in New York City right now. “Let me give you a scenario,” she told me. “Four shiny, brand new mega-jails are being built within the boroughs of New York City.” Brame was referring to the city’s 2017 plan to construct four borough-based new facilities and to reduce the city’s jail population by 25 percent—from around 9,400 people to 7,000—in order to close Rikers by 2027. (Mayor Eric Adams has since cast doubt on whether the project will happen as planned.) Her theory is that while Democrats construct the new facilities, they let the criminals out and allow them to rack up charges. Then, once the cellblocks are ready, Democrats can swoop in and grab all the repeat offenders, holding them for life. “Those are the bodies that are going to fill the beds in those mega-jails,” she said. After all, prison is “a money-making business.”

As has always been the case, Brame said, the people getting the short end of the stick are in Black and brown communities. “Criminals are the industry, right?” she told me, but poor victims are not. There’s no money to be made. “We’re just like collateral damage.”

For Brame, “The only way out of this situation for our communities is for somebody to have the courage to stand up and speak the truth. Statistics,” she said, “are not truth.” But standing up has been alienating. As she’s become more active and outspoken, she’s become estranged from friends, “family members, too,” she said.

“They’re scared to death,” she said. “People are not ready to hear the truth.”

On the day of the trip in April to meet Sammy Ravelo at the New York State capitol, 14 people traveled by charter bus from the Bronx, and dozens more came by another bus from Flushing. One woman around the same age as Brame stepped aboard and introduced herself as Sharlene Jackson Mendez. She held a neon green poster that read, “Wake Up Black America, Return to Excellence.” Brame smiled and told Mendez her name.

Mendez’s eyes widened. She expressed her condolences and planted herself in the seat next to Brame.

Mendez saw Brame as a kind of mirror image. They were both mothers; grandmothers, too. They’d both lived in the Bronx, albeit in different neighborhoods, and had grown up Black in the 1960s.

The two women posited that a range of factors, including “critical race theory” in public schools and “hug a thug” policies in New York, have led to today’s rise in crime. Eventually, Kalief Browder came up. If ever there was a case that might complicate Brame’s conception of bail, Browder’s is it. At birth, Browder was placed into the care of Child Protective Services while his mother struggled with drug addiction. He was arrested in 2010, at age 16, for allegedly stealing a backpack, and held for three years in Rikers. His family couldn’t afford to pay his $3,000 bail. Two years after the charges were dropped and he was released, he died by suicide. His story became a rallying cry for bail reform across the country. Brame and Mendez lowered their voices.

“They use that story.” Brame said in an accusatory tone. “His brother spearheaded bail reform.”

“How do they use his story?” I asked. She told me groups like Black Lives Matter “never let a good tragedy go to waste. Bail reform is something that they have been trying to do for years. And they just needed one instance, one case to prove why it was necessary.”

I asked if she felt like the right used her story in a similar way.

“Absolutely,” she said. “They use me and my son’s story to promote their political agenda and campaign. But at the same time, my son’s story is getting out there. It’s one hand washing the other. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Brame believes Hason’s case will also serve as a kind of spark for a full repeal of bail reform in New York. But bail reform is only the beginning; in the long term, she said, the goal is to inspire a total rejection of criminal justice reform, which, in her view, favors criminals over “tax-paying people.”

A little before 10 am, the bus dropped us off at the state capitol in Albany. We stood in the rain waiting for Ravelo to finish the final stretch of his journey. Passengers of the second bus from Flushing were mostly affiliated with the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY), spurred to action by the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.

TV news reporters were setting up their cameras. On the road two days earlier, Ravelo had met with Andrew Giuliani, Rudy Giuliani’s son, then running to be the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Among those waiting for Ravelo in the shadow of the capitol were Joe Pinion III, also a Republican, running for the Senate, and William Barclay, minority leader of the New York State Assembly. Finally, at 11 am, Ravelo limped toward the crowd.

“We’re on Facebook Live right now,” Ravelo said, using an umbrella as a makeshift cane. “I was just saying that I dedicated this walk…to Miss Madeline Brame.”

The rally commenced. Someone unfurled an African American flag, the traditional stars and stripes in red, black, and green. The chairman of the CACAGNY spoke. “The politicians are living in denial and still want to see more data. You’re gonna hear this data!” he said, pointing at Brame. Ravelo was up next. “This walk is not about me,” he said. “This is not about race either.” Then came minority leader Barclay: “This is not about statistics. It’s not about numbers. It’s about the victims of crime. ” And Pinion: “This is not about politics. This is about people.”

By the time Brame approached the microphone, a number of politicians had already slipped away, back to their offices or maybe lunch. Few stayed to hear what she had to say. Ravelo stayed, but Brame told me she hasn’t heard from him in the six months since the protest. If the rally wasn’t about politics, it didn’t seem like it was about her either.

Brame’s voice echoed across the plaza as if calling out from the edge of a canyon. She spoke of Hason, murdered “like he’s an animal.” She spoke of Hason’s children, who visited his grave last Christmas. She spoke of justice. She expelled her grief, and we, the crowd, absorbed it.

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