If you don't know rapper Meek Mill from his music, you might know him from his headline-grabbing and complicated fight with a judge in Philadelphia over technical probation violations that nearly landed him in prison for two to four years.
Mill fought back and was eventually ordered free by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in April, after prosecutors acknowledged some credibility problems with the testimony of a police officer in the initial drug and firearm case for which Mill was convicted back in 2007. He spent five months in jail during the fight.
Now he's planning a new music tour, but that's not all. He is partnering with his buddy, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, to launch a foundation to fund and lobby for criminal justice reforms.
Mill initially declared his intent to get more involved in the reform movement after his release in April. At a criminal justice reform summit in West Hollywood earlier this month, Mill and Rubin announced that they were putting together the funding and were launching the organization.
On Monday, in an opinion piece in The New York Times, Mill appeared to formally introduce the organization, named simply #REFORM. The group's site is extremely bare bones and at the moment seems to be interested in harvesting email addresses for further action. It almost looks on the surface to be a social media campaign rather than actual activism.
But the site also links to a detailed PowerPoint-style presentation that indicates #REFORM is not merely some sort of celebrity-driven hashtag campaign. It has some specific goals. The group's overarching aim is to free 1 million of the 6.7 million Americans who are under the control of the criminal justice system.
That number refers not only to those who are incarcerated, but also to people in pre-trial detention and the 4.5 million Americans being monitored under probation and parole systems. #REFORM's initial efforts are focused on those two groups. The organization is targeting the nearly 500,000 people who are detained in jail awaiting trial and the more than 1 million people who have been on probation for more than two years.
Mill and his group are focusing on changing the laws and policies in those areas to improve a bail system that often keeps people trapped in jail solely because they cannot pay what's being demanded of them, not because they're dangerous or flight risks. And they're looking to put caps on the length of probation terms. Studies have shown that lengthy probation terms don't serve as an effective deterrent for further criminal activity and often instead entangle people in a costly surveillance system (that they frequently have to pay for themselves) that jeopardizes their liberty over even the mildest of encounters with the police. As Mill discovered, you don't even have to be convicted of a new crime to violate your probation and end up back in jail. #REFORM's report notes that half of all people on probation who are sent back to jail are returned due to "technical" violations, meaning they violated certain conditions of their release but did not commit any new crimes. As Mill notes in his New York Times op-ed:
Together, we will demand stronger prison rehabilitation programs, updated probation policies — including shortened probationary periods — an improved bail system and balanced sentencing structures.
It's a shame that model probationers can be immediately put back behind bars simply for missing curfew, testing positive for marijuana, failing to pay fines on time or, in some cases, not following protocol when changing addresses. Our lawmakers can and should do away with these "technical violations."
The problems with probation are evident in Georgia, which has more than 400,000 people in the system. Those individuals often face incarceration for very minor crimes (highlighted in the Netflix documentary First and Last) that are merely infractions in other states and are forced to pay (and go into debt) to cover their own probation monitoring. In season 3 of the Serial podcast, which focused on Cleveland's court system, judges appear to use long probation terms to essentially control and threaten the freedom of defendants if they don't behave how the judges want.
#REFORM is not detailing as yet how exactly it is going to change those policies, but it is looking to partner with existing groups. The report indicates that co-founders Mill and Rubin are contributing all of the initial funding. We'll have to stay tuned to see what comes of it.