Jay walking. Neglecting to pay a bill on time. Being late to a meeting. “A probation officer could send you to prison for any of those actions,” said Shaka Senghor, the director of strategy and innovation at #Cut50, a Van Jones-funded organization whose mission is to drastically cut down the number of people in U.S. jails and prisons through activism and legislation.
”It is an injustice. Meek’s case isn’t exactly jaywalking, and it’s not just that we’re standing up for only one individual, but his situation is an example of what plenty of non-celebrities go through in the system everyday.” said Senghor talking about rapper Meek Mill, who has been behind bars since early November for probation violations stemming from 2008 gun and drug charges when the now 30-year-old rapper was 19 years-old. #Cut50 has created a campaign around Mill’s case to draw attention to the hardships of the millions of Americans who are on probation or parole.
“Being under the close-watch of correctional supervision often does more harm than good. We need to take a close look at the waste of financial resources and human potential and figure out how to design a system of probation and parole that actually sets out to help people become full, productive, and positively contributing members of society."
Despite the probation officer and the prosecutor’s office in the case not advocating for jail time for the probation violations, Judge Genece Brinkley sentenced the rapper to two to four years in prison. Judge Brinkley has had Meek Mill’s case since 2009. Meek’s legal team has accused the judge of having a personal vendetta against the rapper, and they claim the over-zealous prison sentence is an example of her bias. They have asked for Judge Brinkley to be removed from the case.
The 2017 violations, which prompted the two-to-four-year sentence, had to do with popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in Harlem, and allegedly being involved in an altercation at an airport in St. Louis. Both charges were subsequently dropped, but Judge Brinkley chose to give Meek jail time and also denied Meek bail, calling him a “danger to the community” and a “flight risk.”
“We're continuing to fight for Meek and the tens of thousands of people on probation and parole in Philadelphia, across the state of Pennsylvania and around the country."
Social justice organizations, everyday citizens, and celebrities like Jay-Z and Rev Al Sharpton have rallied around Meek. Online support, with trending hashtags such as #FreeMeekMill and #StandWithMeek, has even morphed into in-person marches and demonstrations. While some people applaud the efforts, there have been vocal critics of the Meek Mill support, most of which is about Meek being hailed as any type of modern day civil rights hero. But Meek’s advocates insist that this is not the case.
“This is not just about Meek. We fight for the Terrences of the world, the Jamals, the Pookies and all that. We are those people. That’s who we do this work for at #Cut50. And we’re not the only ones who see how unfair the system is. Color of Change and all of these organizations do too. We’ve been in the trenches. Nobody’s trying to make Meek into some next generation Mandela. Honestly, the majority of men and women in prison are not Mandela and that’s why getting the narratives out there is so important,” said Senghor who created the #StillNotFree hashtag to encourage people to share their stories about being on probation and parole. Senghor spent 19 years in prison for second-degree murder and knows first-hand the challenges of still being in the system post-prison.
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Jessica Jackson, the national director and co-founder of #Cut50, reiterated that Meek’s latest legal hurdle is not the end of the campaign and that his situation is just one story of millions.
“We're continuing to fight for Meek and the tens of thousands of people on probation and parole in Philadelphia, across the state of Pennsylvania and around the country. 4.65 Million people are under correctional supervision - that's a staggering number of people and honestly a drain on our economy and our society. We need to give men and women the opportunity to move beyond their past decisions and become full contributing members of society,” she told VICE Impact. “Being under the close-watch of correctional supervision often does more harm than good. We need to take a close look at the waste of financial resources and human potential and figure out how to design a system of probation and parole that actually sets out to help people become full, productive, and positively contributing members of society."
In Pennsylvania, where Meek is serving his sentence, one-in-three people in prison are there because of probation or parole violations, according to Color of Change. That is evidence of how difficult it is to stay within the strict confines of probation and parole requirements. These facts are highlighted in the petition #Cut50 and Color of Change created to demand Judge Brinkley be removed from Meek Mill’s case.
So far, more than 65,000 people have signed the petition. There is also a petition to end Philadelphia’s use of detainers, which give judges unusually broad discretion to send people to jail for parole and probation violations without a pre-trial release options. According to the petition, this practice leads to people languishing in jail for months at a time before a trial date is even scheduled.
In Pennsylvania, where Meek is serving his sentence, one-in-three people in prison are there because of probation or parole violations.
For Clarise McCants, Color of Change’s criminal justice campaign director, the tenuous freedom of probation and parole hits close to home. Her brother was in prison for 20 years and is now living under the weight of 15 years of probation.
“He’s faced so many hurdles. When he first came home, He had an 8pm curfew. He came home around Thanksgiving, so we couldn’t really have a full family dinner because he had to hurry up and get home,” she told VICE Impact “Eventually he had to leave from where he was living because of conditions of probation and now, he’s living in a hotel because he just bought a house, but it’s in Delaware and he can’t live in another state. He works in Delaware, he has a card from his probation officer that allows him to cross the state line, but he still can’t live in the house he bought. It’s a lot and he’s not the only person dealing with these types of issues.”
The plan is to use Meek Mill’s case as a jumping off point to make systemic changes in Philadelphia and other cities and other states. There are probation reform bills being crafted in Michigan and California.
Visit FreeMeekMill.org to keep up on the details of Meek’s case and to sign the petition. Sign the detainer petition to help make changes to Philadelphia’s criminal justice system. Visit the Color of Change and #cut50 websites to get more information about probation and parole system reform and local initiatives.