Meek Mill, hip hop artist-turned-justice crusader, is using his star power to fuel an ambitious $50 million campaign to shrink the number of individuals caught inside the U.S. probation and parole systems—a 4.7-million-strong group of which he may be the most famous member.
The campaign, called the REFORM Alliance, was launched Wednesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York with an event that brought together VIPs from the worlds of music, sport, media, politics and finance, all pledging their support for justice reform.
“I didn’t ask to be the face of reform,” Mill told the packed forum, in a reference to his year-long battle with Pennsylvania courts over a decision to revoke his parole and send him back to prison for a “technical” violation—which in turn provoked a nationwide protest that resulted in his release last April.
“I don’t want to be the face of anything. I just want to bridge gaps and try to bring people together and make the world a better place, especially for my culture and the environment where I grew up, where the system is targeted against people who look like me.”
Mill said he decided to channel the anger and frustration he felt into a movement that could help the millions of others who didn’t have the kind of celebrity profile that finally persuaded authorities to spring him from prison. (Officially he is still subject to the community supervision system until 2023. Released on bail, he had to receive permission from his probation officer to attend the launch.)
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “But there are people who don’t have a voice, and I’m here to speak for [them].”
Joining Mill on stage were some of the influential figures who had lobbied for his release and were now founding partners and board members of the REFORM Alliance: music mogul Jay-Z; Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; Third Point LLC CEO and founder Daniel Loeb; Galaxy Digital CEO and founder Michael E. Novogratz; and Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai.
The eighth board member, Robert F. Smith, CEO & Founder of Vista Equity Partners, was unable to attend.
The new alliance did not offer any detailed plan for how it would use the $50 million in private capital supporting the initiative, but the newly appointed CEO of the group, CNN’s Van Jones, said it was intended to promote activities already underway by “grassroots” groups to develop alternatives to the community supervision system—with an early focus on New York and Pennsylvania.
“We are here to add capacity, to amplify the voices, to lift up the people who have been screaming for so long, with so little attention,” said Jones, who has co-founded numerous advocacy organizations dedicated to justice reform, including #Cut50, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, ColorOfChange.org, and the Dream Corps.
Editor’s Note: Jones was named the 2017 “Justice Media Trailblazer” by The Crime Report.
Unveiling the group’s catchphrase, “Fight Different,” Jones said the new organization should be seen as part of the continuing efforts across the country to develop bipartisan support for fixing the justice system.
“We are not here to reinvent the wheel,” added Jones, whose lobbying for successful passage of the watershed federal criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, earned him a spot last month behind President Donald Trump at the White House signing ceremony.
“We are here to accelerate the wheel that has already been built by grassroots organizations.”
The well-funded REFORM Alliance adds more heft to the increasing trend towards private investment of justice reform initiatives in a climate of reduced federal funding, and the participation of Mill and Jay Z also accelerates the involvement of entertainment and sports celebrities, ranging from John Legend to football star Colin Kaepernick, in controversial social justice issues such as police bias.
“I think attention is being brought to this [probation] issue because of his celebrity,” said Jay Z in a reference to Mill, adding that he and others hoped they could now use the celebrity attention to make a difference.
They already proved they could get the attention of politicians.
Sitting in the front rows of the audience was a gallery of political heavyweights, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf; Cook County (Ill.) State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx; Brooklyn (N.Y.) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
But arguably, given REFORM’s mission to serve those most adversely affected by the criminal justice system, the event’s most important attendees were not part of any blue-ribbon guest list.
They were a group of young people and grassroots activists who joined Topeka Sam, founder and Executive Director of the Ladies of Hope Ministries in Brooklyn, N.Y., on stage as she delivered her own take on the need for reform.
“So often we only speak about the 2.2 million people who are currently incarcerated in our prisons and jails in our nation,” she said. “We don’t speak about the 4.7 million people who are incarcerated in our communities through probation and parole.”
She continued: “Why is this number so high? Because people are being sentenced to lengthy terms of post-incarceration and probation, and are then being subjected to arbitrary harassment, which leads to violations, then prison, then parole, then probation, then prison again.
“(It’s) an ongoing cycle that [never] ends. And it ends today.”
The Justice System’s “Revolving Door”
Meek Mill’s case is an example of what Jones called the “revolving door” of the justice system that spins millions of Americans in and out of prison and the courts, as a result of a system of byzantine rules that govern their lives for years after their release from incarceration.
Mill was arrested for violating the terms of parole granted a decade earlier after serving eight months on gun and drug charges. His offenses: “popping a wheelie” on a dirt bike (a traffic offense), and his alleged involvement in an airport fight. On November 2017, a Pennsylvania judge sentenced him to two-four years in state prison despite recommendations from his probation officer and the District Attorney’s office that he face no sentence.
Reform advocates say such “technical violations”—like arriving late to a meeting with a parole officer or failing to inform him in advance of travel—regularly send more than two-thirds of those under community supervision back to prison in a system that they charge is especially weighted against people of color.
“We are going to dismantle this revolving door,” pledged Jones. “We are going to put our love against the hate that built this system.”
Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.