The Lesson of Meek Mill: A Probation System ‘Set Up to Fail’

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Hip hop artist Meek Mill is spearheading a new national initiative to slash probation numbers. Photo by Getty Images

Meek Mill, winner of the 2016 Billboard Music Award for Top Rap Album, made news in November when he was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating probation. The judge cited a series of supervision violations as reasons for the revocation. They included testing positive for drug use, new arrests for low-level crimes (one for popping a “wheelie” on a dirtbike and one for a fight), and failure to abide by travel restrictions.He had no new criminal conviction.

Mill’s probation originally stemmed from a 2007 arrest, which came with a short stint in jail and a seven year probation term. His sentence sparked a wave of protest in Philadelphia and beyond, as his supporters push for the judge’s recusal and broader criminal justice reforms. This activism is joining an increasingly loud criminal justice chorus calling for reform. On Monday, a group of leading correctional administrators and advocates, including Van Jones and #Cut50, declared that the U.S. should cut probation and parole populations in half.

See Also: Why Meek Mill Is Not Alone

As Jay-Z wrote in the New York Times, Mill’s imprisonment sends the message that the criminal justice system “stalks black people.” What happened to Mill is not an exception. In fact, it’s just one example of a bloated criminal justice system which not only sends too many to prison, but also entraps more than 4.6 million adults in community supervision—with most serving their time on probation.

Probation is a court-ordered form of criminal justice supervision meted out for both felony and misdemeanor offenses. Unlike parole (which is typically supervision following release from prison), individuals can be sentenced directly to probation, for terms lasting up to more than 10 years in a handful of states.

Meek Mill’s story is typical in at least three respects:

  • Young black men without a high school diploma face exceptionally high rates of probation supervision;
  • The terms of supervision are frequently very difficult to meet for years on end, and probationers are frequently imprisoned for violating the terms of supervision;
  • Revocation rates are especially high for young African-American men.

In recently published research, I use a household survey that collected data in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014 to show who is on probation. As compared to other Americans, those on probation are more likely to be young African-American and Hispanic men with low levels of formal education. During this period, one in six black men aged 20-34 years without a high school diploma reported being on probation at some point during the year. For young white men who never graduated from high school, one in eight reported probation supervision.

Education (or the economic stability needed to enter college) protects men from probation; among young men with some college experience, an estimated four percent of white men and five percent of black men reported being on probation in the previous year.


Table courtesy Michelle Phelps

These racial disparities grow starker when we look at who is incarcerated for probation violations in prison. While 57 percent of probationers in the community identify as non-Hispanic whites, only 40 percent of former probationers in jail and prison do so. In addition, these former probationers make up a substantial share of the incarcerated population.

Nationwide in the early 2000s, an estimated 33 percent of jail inmates and 23 percent of prison inmates were on probation at the time of their arrest.

Lastly, like Meek Mill, many of these adults in jail and prison are incarcerated for nothing more serious than a violation of the terms of their supervision. Nearly one in three jail inmates and one in five prison inmates who were on probation at the time of arrest are incarcerated because of such “technical” violations, excluding new arrests.

As in Mill’s case, these supervision violations include failure to report and abide by travel restrictions, testing positive for drugs, and other comparatively low-level administrative infractions. An additional 32 percent of failed probationers in jail and six percent of those in prison are incarcerated for revocations related to new arrest charges, but have not been convicted of a new crime. Only 25 percent of failed probationers in jail (but 70 percent of failed probationers in prison) were there for a new criminal conviction.

This evidence suggests that the criminal justice system pushes an extraordinary number young men of color into community supervision—and then sets them up to fail by requiring an exacting performance that is nearly impossible for young men in high-crime and heavily-policed neighborhoods with few resources to meet. At the same time, probation provides few supportive services to help young adults succeed and exit supervision successfully.

As Columbia University’s Justice Lab recently declared, community corrections is “too big to succeed.” Signed by leading practitioners and policy reformers in the field, the report calls for a series of community supervision reforms that can be embraced by states and local jurisdictions, including:

  • Cutting the overall supervision population in half, reserving supervision for only serious cases;
  • Reducing the length of supervision;
  • Limiting the number of conditions imposed on probationers (e.g. drug testing and travel restrictions);
  • Incentivizing positive progress on probation by allowing early discharge;
  • Eliminating probation supervision fees;
  • Improving services and support for probationers.
Michelle Phelps

Michelle S. Phelps

If such principles had guided Philadelphia and Pennsylvania when Meek Mill was sentenced and supervised, he would likely not be behind bars today. By shrinking probation and parole, limiting supervision to only more serious cases, and providing more meaningful support and fewer barriers to success, jurisdictions can scale back the fiscal and social costs of mass punishment and improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Michelle S. Phelps is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research is on policing, prisons, and probation. She welcomes comments from readers.

3 thoughts on “The Lesson of Meek Mill: A Probation System ‘Set Up to Fail’

  1. Pingback: Lots of interesting news, notes and commentary as the calendar turns – Ben Lee

  2. Probation is not a right for those convicted of a felony. It requires the offender to abide by regulations in exchange for remaining out of prison. While these regulations my be inconvenient, they are less onerous than incarceration. While “technical”violations may appear trivial, they can serve as the canary in a coal mine–an indication of more serious criminal behavior. As philosophers of the street note, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

  3. Please see my reply via Crime in America.Net at

    Reformers can state that the probation system sets people up for failure but it’s disingenuous in the extreme. There are so many mechanisms set up to separate lower-level offenders and to tolerate those who violate that any sense of strict accountability is tossed out the window for most.

    But as stated, advocates are correct when they suggest that some who violate (the vast majority do) do so because terms of supervision are too long or for a few, too complex.

    We should stop testing for marijuana. Terms of supervision should be limited to one year “if” the offender successfully completes “most” of his requirements. Programs should be in place to help offenders deal with mental health and substance abuse issues. Direct funding for programs is tiny because there is no confidence that they work.

    Judges and the parole commissions should stop imposing special conditions; that should be the job of parole and probation agencies who know the offender better than anyone. If a judge requires drug treatment, then it’s enforceable. Enforceable means that the offender will probably fail unless he has the motivation to succeed.

    We need to accept minimum levels of supervision for minor or older offenders or those who have decent (not perfect) compliance. We simply cannot be all things to all people.

    But at the same time, we need to recognize that many probationers pose a public safety risk based on recidivism data. Some need to be in prison.

    When I attended a class for those convicted of spouse abuse, many were genuinely confused when told that they cannot hit their significant others. Many grew up in dysfunctional households where violence against women was accepted. Now, we were telling them that it wasn’t.

    We can insist that offenders cannot use violence as a method of interacting with other people. But if we do, it’s enforceable. Are we willing to live with the consequences?

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