Hip Hop Performer Dragged through Criminal Justice System now Focused on Reform
Multi-award winning rapper turned criminal justice reform activist Meek Mill pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of gun possession Tuesday in exchange for having all other charges from his 2007 gun and drug arrest dropped, a 12-year legal battle that saw him in and out of jail over petty offenses related to his probation.
Now the performer will focus on getting other Americans off parole and probation who lack his financial wealth and celebrity status through an organization he founded earlier this year called Reform Alliance, whose founding members also include hip hop performer Jay-Z, Philadelphia 76ers owner Michael Rubin and several other business executives.
The goal is a mass overhaul of the criminal justice system, specifically when it comes to probation and parole which maintains a firm control on more than 4.5 million Americans who have already served their time.
It all started on January 4, 2007 when Meek Mill – whose real name is Robert Williams – was on his way to a corner store in Philadelphia carrying a gun for protection when cops approached him as recounted in his new Amazon Prime docuseries.
Mill, 19 years old at the time, put down his gun and raised his empty hands.
That interaction led Mill to his 12-year battle with the justice system, including being arrested three times, not for actual crimes he had committed but for technical violations stemming from the original arrest, resulting in him being placed on house arrest and probation for 10 years.
In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Mill said his legal battles would have lasted longer had it not been for his celebrity status and wealth of resources.
“If it was holding someone back like me, you gotta think about the average person. You know me, I’m in the music industry. I’m making millions of dollars. I’m able to provide for my family. I have a job. I provide jobs for people. I do community service. I pay taxes. And at the same time - I wasn’t involved in crime - at the same time, I was still getting pulled back into the system and placed in jail.”
Mill was slapped with 19 charges. Several revolved around him carrying a loaded gun without a license – which Mill pleaded guilty to – but others included aggravated assault and drug possession – which he profusely denied.
Philadelphia police officer Reginald Graham, the arresting officer and member of a “do not call” list for untrustworthy cops made by the city's district attorney, testified he saw Mill sell cocaine the day before and claimed the rapper pulled a gun on him.
Graham was the only witness to testify at the young rapper’s trial and based on his word alone, Mill was sent to prison for eight months and put on probation for an additional five years that quickly turned to 10.
Graham’s colleague, who took part in Mill’s arrest, later admitted he lied about Mill ever threatening him with a gun. But Graham is not the only one to blame for Mill’s troubles.
Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley sent Mills back to prison several times for violating his parole which may sound like a common within-your-job description thing to do except the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had to step in to remove her from Mill’s case due to her harsh sentencing.
Brinkley sent Mill to prison for up to four years in 2017 for getting into a fight and popping a wheelie on a motorcycle in New York for a music video. The prosecutor in the case didn’t think Mill should go to jail, but that didn’t matter to the judge. That led to an FBI investigation into her practices.
Brinkley said she feared Mill was a “flight risk” and “danger to the community,” according to court documents obtained by TMZ.
In one instance, during a February 2016 hearing, Brinkley brought Mill and his ex-girlfriend Nicki Minaj into her chambers for a conversation. There, according to court papers, Brinkley asked Mill to cover the Boyz II Men song “On Bended Knee,” asking that Mill give Brinkley a shout-out in the track. When Mill brushed that suggestion aside, Brinkley responded, “Suit yourself.”
The state’s supreme court threw out Mill’s 2008 conviction and 2017 prison sentence, immediately releasing the rapper in 2018, and gave him a new trial and judge instead.
“We conclude the after-discovered evidence is of such a strong nature and character that a different verdict will likely result at a retrial,” the judges wrote in court documents.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office negotiated a deal with Mill to finally give him the relief he long ago deserved.
At a press conference following Mill’s plea agreement, Larry Krasner called this case an “example of excessive punishment.”
“This is a case, as I’m sure you can all understand from the proceedings today, that was not an exoneration, it was not an example of someone who is completely innocent, but it was, in my view, an example of excessive punishment, excessive supervision, in terms of parole. I think it was also an example of some unfair procedures and some questionable integrity,” Krasner said.
“I know this has been a long road for you and hopefully this will be the end of it,” Mill’s new judge Leon Tucker said.
While Mill’s legal troubles may have ended, for millions of others in the United States, it still continues.
Using the latest data available provided by the U.S. Bureau of Justice, over 4.5 million adults were on parole or probation by the end of 2016. While statistics show more white people were on parole than black, percentages are skewed when factoring each race’s population in the U.S..
This chart created by the PEW Research Center shows black adults are 3.5 times as likely to wind up on probation or parole than their white counterparts. Black people account for 13 percent of the U.S. population but make up almost 30 percent of those under community supervision. Hispanics and Latinos make up 18 percent of the U.S. while comprising of 14 percent of those on probation or parole.
As of November of 2017, the United States Sentencing Commission found that black male offenders have continuously received longer sentences than their white counterparts for the same infraction. On top of that, judges are 20 percent less likely to reduce a black man’s sentence than they are a white man’s. If a black man does get a reduced sentence, it’s still almost 17 percent longer than their white counterparts for the same crime committed.
Going beyond the differences in sentencing found between races, there are discrepancies among black people based on skin tone.
A Harvard study from 2007 reviewed first-time felony charges in Georgia from 1995 to 2002. On average, black people were sentenced to jail for 378 days longer than white people. When broken down by skin tone, however, lighter black people were only sentenced three and a half months longer than whites. Medium-skinned black people got a sentence about a year longer than their white counterparts. Dark-skinned black people on average received a year and a half longer of a sentence.
The judicial system in the United States is set up in such a way that praises the closer someone is to being white, because in its eyes, “white is right.”
“I’m extremely grateful that my long legal battle is finally behind me and I appreciate that it has sparked a much-needed discussion about probation reform and the inequalities that exist within our two Americas,” Mill tweeted after his final court hearing Tuesday morning that closed his case for good.
Mill often said there are “two Americas” we exist in and Michael Rubin, co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, didn’t understand just how true that sentiment was until his own friend was affected by it.
Rolling Stone reported that at a press conference in Manhattan earlier this year, Rubin would always question this “two Americas” Mill would go on about saying, “Bro, what are you talking about?”
Going back to when Mill was sentenced to up to four years in prison for doing a wheelie on a bike in New York City, Rubin recalls a conversation with Mill that day.
“It was Mill, who called to say, ‘I told you so! … I told you there were two Americas!’ You were right,” he said, “and I was dead wrong.”
Mill and Rubin, along with other wealthy business, entertainment and sports-team owners have pledged a combined $50 million dollars toward the Reform Alliance initiative dedicated to advocating for criminal justice reform. The initiative will work toward a goal of reducing the amount of people currently on probation or parole by one million within five years.
“I’m 32 years old now. I never been back to prison and probation has sent me back to prison three or four times without committing a crime,” Meek said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Technical violations can land those under community supervision back in jail for doing something as insignificant as making a u-turn or having an interaction with a cop, even if you didn’t commit a crime.
A lawsuit, turned class action, said Missouri’s technical violations have “created a procedural vortex from which people on parole cannot escape and are at continual risk of being rearrested and reentered into the prison system.”
Its meticulous rules, that some believe are blown out of proportion, caused Stephanie Gasca, an expectant mother, to have her baby while in custody. She left a drug rehab program early, not realizing it was against her parole, and had to deliver her baby a month after being booked. Gasca had to give her baby to its grandmother so she could return to jail to finish the remainder of her six month sentence.
“If the goal of prisons is to try to prevent crime, I don’t think this is doing that, when people are being locked up for things other than committing crimes,” attorney from the MacArthur Justice Center Amy Breihan said.
In some instances, known innocent people are stuck in jail because of statues that require them to file a petition for relief within a certain amount of time before the court stops caring about “liberty and justice for all.”
“I don’t think you should be able to make a mistake and just be placed in a penitentiary, like, where is the in-between? Where is the rehabilitation,” Mill told Rolling Stone last April. “I’m always going to a guy who I played ping-pong [with] as an example. I watched him open his legal mail from superior court and they tell him, in a briefing, that ‘We know you’re innocent, but due to certain statutes, you’re still in prison.’ I see the way he fought for 26 years.”
For Meek, he needed to bring forth evidence within 60 days of finding out the cop that arrested him back in 2007 was corrupt if he wanted his case reexamined.
“A lot of people don’t really understand what’s going on or don’t believe it until they really see it,” rapper, businessman and co-founder of Reform Alliance Jay Z said in an interview for the “Free Meek” docuseries. “Meek is not the only one. You tell people these stories, you can’t believe it until you hear from a source...this is not fantasy, this is fact. This is just things that are so far that I have to say something.”