Can rapper Meek Mill help invigorate the movement for criminal justice reform in the US?

The movement to repair America’s broken criminal justice system is growing. Although there are many who would argue that it is working exactly as it was designed to, the United States currently has the largest prison population in the world. With its emphasis on incarcerating and punishing individuals rather than rehabilitating them, and with discriminatory sentencing that sees African-Americans six times and Latinos three times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, there is little evidence of ‘justice’ but ample proof of criminalisation.

There are a litany of issues: racist policing which disproportionately targets low-income communities of colour in terms of arrests; a cash bail system which penalises those without the money to literally pay for their freedom (75 per cent of America’s local prisons comprise people who cannot afford to post bail); not to mention parole and probation issues, all of which are drivers of mass incarceration in the US.

But it is the case of a Philadelphia rapper that has sparked a national debate on the issue, with several high-profile supporters campaigning for the reform of America’s criminal justice system.

Meek Mill – best known for his debut album Dreams and Nightmares and for previously dating pop star Nicki Minaj – was born Robert Rihmeek Williams. First arrested on drugs and weapons offences in 2007, the only witness was a narcotics officer named Reginald Graham, who testified that he saw Mill selling crack cocaine, and that he pulled out a gun when officers approached him. Mill admitted to being in possession of a weapon, but he denied all other charges. However, he was convicted by Judge Genece Brinkley of the initial weapon and drug charges and sentenced to 11- 23 months in 2008. After serving five months in prison, Mill was released under a five-year parole agreement in 2009.

In 2014, following a series of parole violations (opiate use and travelling without prior permission), Mill found himself back in prison for six months and his parole period was extended by six years. After a number of subsequent non-violent and minor violations of his parole conditions – also known as ‘technical infractions’ – Mill was finally sentenced by Judge Brinkley to two to four years in state prison with immediate effect.

The sentencing sparked public outcry. Supporters of Meek Mill considered it disproportionate to the initial crime, while his case also evoked further concerns about racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

The viral hashtag #FreeMeekMill was born, and hundreds of protesters rallied in Philadelphia. The case attracted a number of high-profile supporters who visited the rapper in prison including co-owner of the Philadelphia Sixers basketball team Michael Rubin, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton and the comedian Kevin Hart. Even rap icon and music mogul Jay-Z took to the opinion pages of the New York Times to voice his support for Meek Mill.

In February 2018, Mill’s attorney requested a retrial on the basis that his arresting officer was recently found guilty of misconduct in previous trials. On 24 April 2018, Mill was granted bail by the Supreme Court pending a retrial decision by Judge Brinkley; the request for a new trial was denied on 26 June 2018. Mill’s lawyer Joe Tacopina gave an interview on the MSNBC news network during which he called for a law reform, and also expressed his intention to appeal Brinkley’s decision.

The need for reform of parole and probation laws

As holds true with Meek Mill’s case, many people end up serving sentences for violating a condition of their parole or probation, as opposed to committing a new crime. Meek Mill was 18 years old when he committed his initial offence; now aged 31, he has been on parole for his entire adult life.

A former criminal defence attorney (who asked to remain anonymous) told Equal Times: “There is virtually universal and bipartisan consensus that the criminal justice system in America is in many respects dysfunctional and very much in need of reform and repair.

“Though not the most significant aspect of this problem, excessively long probation terms have done much to foster unnecessary complications for defendants. The simple fact is that long-term probation terms for relatively minor cases subject defendants to a scrutiny that is far out of proportion to what is needed for supervision and/or rehabilitation and can unfairly increase the possibility of an infraction.”

Over 60,000 people are returned to prison annually for minor parole violations and Mill’s case has shed light on the issue of harsh sentencing laws.

Approximately one-third of Pennsylvania’s 50,000 state prisoners are probationers or parolees that have been sent back to prison. Today, with a caseload of over 4.7 million – one out of every 52 U.S. adults – community corrections agencies supervise more than twice as many people in the community as the 2.2 million Americans behind bars.

Criminal justice activists argue that reform of the current parole and probation laws would reduce recidivism rates and mass incarceration. Recommendations include: eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reducing the use of cash bail, implementing training to reduce racial bias, and rewarding good behaviour with reduced sentences.

In a Time Magazine feature in May 2018, Mill was pronounced “the face of criminal justice reform”. Speaking to Equal Times, Adam Rogers – a Philadelphia youth mentor, DJ and bar co -owner – commended Mill’s use of his platform as a means to address an unjust criminal justice system, and said that he is confident that along with additional pressure from his high-profile supporters, legislators will be compelled to make the necessary reforms.

“The courts wanted to make an example of Meek Mill, given his celebrity status. He’s a public figure, constantly in the public eye, and is highly influential amongst minority youth. His case was a means to convey their message, that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated,” says Rogers.

Mill acknowledges that he is in a better position than many given that he has the resources to fight injustice, so for this reason he has vowed to continue to use his platform to highlight miscarriages of justice. At a press conference for an event on criminal justice reform held the week after he was released from prison, Mill told reporters: “I actually made a commitment to speaking for the voiceless. I spent time with these men and women, and watched families being broken apart because of addiction, mental illness, technical violations.”

Carmen Pérez, executive director of The Gathering for Justice and co-chair of The Women’s March, told Equal Times by email: “Meek Mill’s case is about more than one man and one bad judge. It’s representative of a much larger pattern of black and brown people whose first unjust interaction with police results in being at the mercy of the courts and parole officers for decades. Meek Mill was incarcerated for no good reason, without posing any threat to society or having committed any new crime.”

But she describes his case as a microcosm for the millions of people in the US who live with the “collateral consequences to a previous conviction for which they have already served time. These collateral consequences prevent them from getting jobs, buying houses, attending PTA [Parent-Teacher Association] meetings and many, many other activities which are not crimes but contributions to society.

“Meek Mill’s celebrity shines a light on the callousness and pointlessness of this injustice, and creates the opportunity to unite people around reform of the probation and parole system, as well as the cash bail system that forces low-income people into the system before they have an opportunity to prove their innocence.”

In his op-ed for the NY Times rapper Jay Z expressed that probation is a trap and urged everyone to fight for all those like Mill who have been unjustly sent to prison. But as for now, as posted on the Justice League New York City’s Twitter page, “Meek may be home, but he’s not free!”