Meek Mill and Philadelphia Show Us the Path Forward to Criminal Justice Reform

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins writes that the recent election of a progressive district attorney in Philadelphia has demonstrated how we can take action against systemic inequities.
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The well-known definition of insanity—“doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”—is also a perfect way to describe the current state of our country as it relates to our issues with race. Over and over again we talk about the need for equality and inclusion—we all feel good about denouncing racists, we protest, we march—yet we still have a justice system that is encouraged and incentivized to incarcerate black and brown bodies. We still have unarmed men and women of color losing their lives at the hands of police, whose actions get coded as “implicit bias” rather than “racist.”


Every day, people of color worry that they will be arrested for activities as mundane as sitting in a Starbucks, yet we are all too willing to celebrate all the things we as a country have accomplished, while shying away from focusing on race. We celebrate former President Barack Obama and other highly successful black people, as we should, but also point to them as evidence that our race issues are over. We rarely like to address the fact that we, as a country, are still reaping the strange fruit from the seeds of our ancestors.

As I contemplate how to break from this insanity, I see black people in this country fighting two battles at the same time. There is an external battle against a society with social structures built on the marginalization of black people and then there is also an internal struggle to apply the current energy and unrest in the black community towards something powerful and productive in order to carve out our own space within the very same structures that have marginalized us. Both represent significant challenges, but for the purposes of this column I am going to focus on the external battle.

More and more people are starting to see that our issues with race are systemic and as that awareness grows, the fight against the system gains momentum. Racism in 2018 isn’t about segregation, water hoses, and dogs but about constructs designed to capitalize off of poor people and people of color (good luck if you fall into both categories). People are starting to understand that police need more accountability and that we need reforms to our justice system to end the damaging and costly effects of mass incarceration. We are starting to understand that when you destroy family structures and exclude people from quality education, you are building a pipeline towards crime, death, or incarceration. With a ton of highly visible incidents to reference, it is important that we continue to point out these racial disparities in our societal systems and put pressure on those with the power to change them.


In many places, we are making important progress in combating these structural inequities. Recently in Philadelphia, we elected civil rights attorney Larry Krasner district attorney, who was voted in as a champion for justice reform. He has not disappointed. He’s done more in the last four months than many do in their entire term. The situation surrounding Meek Mill—a Philly rapper whose legal fight became a major talking point for criminal justice reform—highlights exactly why the role of district attorney is so important. Even though Meek is a superstar celebrity, has money, and more importantly hadn’t committed a real crime in 10 years, neither his money nor fame could keep him from his ridiculous sentence of 2-4 years in prison for popping a wheelie. Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and Jay Z, Meek’s enormously wealthy friends, poured money and resources into drawing attention to his case, but that still wasn’t enough to get Meek out.

It was instead a key move by Larry Krasner that turned the tide. He did what many prosecutors don’t do: held the local police department accountable. Turns out the the former district attorney instructed his prosecutors to create a list of cops who, for reasons including brutality, racial bias, and plain lying, were not to be used as witnesses at trial. Krasner promised to make that list public and after receiving a court order in March, he finally did. Turns out that one of the officers on that list was the arresting officer in Meek Mill’s case. The Philly D.A.'s office also filed a motion in Meek's case saying it would not oppose his release and that the arresting officer had provided false testimony. It was that HUGE intervention that turned the tide to allow Meek a retrial and the opportunity to at least post bail. Also over 100 other cases will be dropped because of the revelation of this list of corrupt officers.

Meek being released from prison is very important. Not just for Meek’s sake, but for anyone who wishes to see a truly just society as well as everyone else who has been unnecessarily gobbled up by a justice system masterfully designed to keep you entangled in it. We deprive people of education and opportunity that works as a feeder system to incarceration. Then instead of using this “time” to rehabilitate the majority of men and women that will return to society, we do everything in our power to break them and punish them more. Then we release them into a world that is conditioned to discriminate against them and put them under the strictest guidelines to which no citizen chasing the “American Dream” could adhere. This creates situations where popping a wheelie can get you 2-4 years and literally restart the cycle.

Meek Mill's notoriety brought necessary attention to these issue and has highlighted a path to progress. These are the fights that are necessary to break down barriers within the system to actually create the true equality and justice that our country professes is central to its core. In Philadelphia, we not only learned how powerful the ballot box can be, but that the arena for this particular battle is in the voting booth.

I will be hosting DA Candidate Forums later this week in Sacramento, as well as in Oakland/Alameda alongside Doug Baldwin, Richard Sherman, and Johnson Bademosi. Now is the time to address racial disparity and gain an understanding that YOUR voice and vote can do something about it.