Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Philadelphia is supposed to be the city of brotherly love and criminal justice reform. Why is Meek Mill back in prison?
Embattled Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, born Robert Williams, is officially state property again, having been sentenced to up to four years in prison for violating his probation. His offenses: a failed drug test for the painkiller Percocet, popping wheelies on his dirt bike in New York City, and a scuffle in an airport. He’s been serving probation since 2009 when he was released from prison for a 2008 conviction on guns and drugs-related crimes. For his current stint, he’ll get out of prison in two years if he’s lucky, or if his lawyer can successfully appeal his latest sentence.
In theory, this shouldn’t be Williams’ lot, not in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and criminal justice reform. This is the city that has adopted several measures, including lightening penalties for marijuana arrests and letting first-time drug offenders off to reduce its incarceration footprint. This is the city that just voted civil rights and criminal defense lawyer, Larry Krasner, who made a career off of advancing those reforms, as its new district attorney. This is the city that has been awarded millions of dollars from the MacArthur Foundation to extinguish its reputation as one of the top incarcerators in the nation. Neither the prosecutor nor Williams’ probation officer requested prison time in this latest hearing. So why is Meek Mill in prison again?
Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley said in her ruling that Williams’ recent offenses were tantamount to the rapper “thumbing [his] nose at the court.” Perhaps, the most serious of those offenses was an altercation Williams got in at the St. Louis airport. His charges were dropped, but he put in some community service time with the Philadelphia Veterans Association. Meanwhile, Philly.com reports that one of the airport employees was fired and is being prosecuted. Williams’ lawyer explained to Judge Brinkley that such run-ins are sometimes the cost of fame.
His other crime: doing stunts on an ATV. Anyone who’s followed Williams’ career, or his Instagram page, knows his affinity for biking. He is part of a street culture that has turned motorbike riding into its own form of American graffiti. He is part of a new generation of Easy Riders and Dukes of Hazard, but one that gets none of the pop glory for their rebellion. It is primarily young black men who indulge in this street bike life culture.
And the criminalization of this culture is trending. Cities are increasingly classifying free-wheeling as a jailable offense—Baltimore unfurled an entire covert, and possibly unlawful, surveillance program to go after street bikers. While cities like Philadelphia seek brownie points for decriminalizing pot, they are still pursuing petty activities like biking as pretexts for arrests, potentially offsetting progress in reducing incarceration.
Williams’ last offense, taking a painkiller containing opioids, is the subject of a national crisis. The majority of public health officials and law enforcement leaders already take the view that prison is the last place to send a person who’s struggling with drug abuse or addiction. Locking Williams up only lends itself to the idea that when it comes to drug abuse, sympathy is reserved only for white users who live in suburban and rural settings.
Williams isn’t facing sentencing because he committed new “crimes” though. His sentence was instead part of a sweeping alternative system by which people are punished: probation violations. Because of Williams’ earlier convictions from almost ten years ago, he’s caught in a system where infractions, no matter how tiny, are held to a stricter scrutiny in court than they would otherwise merit before a judge. Not only that, but under probation, small slip-ups, poor decisions, and honest mistakes subject individuals to sometimes harsher punishments than those handed to people who’ve committed far worse crimes.
For a failed urine test Meek Mill was sentenced to more jail time than:— The Sparrow Project (@sparrowmedia) November 7, 2017
Darren Wilson - Michael Brown's killer
Timothy Loehmann - Tamir Rice's killer
Daniel Pantaleo - Eric Garner's killer
Sean Williams - John Crawford's killer
Michael Slager - Walter Scott's killer
Probation, in its present form, is increasingly becoming viewed as a poor instrument for keeping people out of jail, especially for African Americans. There are twice as many people on probation as there are in prison, jail, or on parole. A 2014 study on probation from the Urban Institute found that African Americans had their probation revoked at higher rates than whites or Latinos in the four study sites they examined, one of which was New York City. Given that African Americans are more likely to come in contact with police due to the over-policing of black communities and black people in general, they are more often arrested and found to violate probation terms, according to the study.
In his 2005 book When Brute Force Fails: Strategic Thinking for Crime Control, noted criminologist Mark Kleiman called for a transformation of the probation system into something that isn’t merely a more polite feeder system for the prison system. Probation shouldn’t be “something you can flunk out of,” wrote Kleiman. Instead of providing a long list of strict conditions that probates must follow under threat of returning to prison, the conditions should be a shorter, finite set of rules that are tailored to whatever the offense in question is. A person convicted of drug offenses, for example, would only be expected not to break probation terms related to drug consumption or possession. The penalty for breaking those terms wouldn’t be lengthy prison sentences, but just tighter supervision, more community service, and at most a day or two of confinement.
Kleiman calls this the Swift Certain and Fair principles of operating systems where people convicted of crimes are released to the public under supervision. Several jurisdictions across the U.S. have probation programs that operate under these principles. As the Swift, Certain, & Fair website reads:
Indeed, every single one of the seventeen states that have undertaken justice reinvestment since 2010 has found probation or parole revocations to be an important driver of their growing prison populations. And despite a variety of local, state, and Federal initiatives over the last two decades, failure rates for supervised individuals have not meaningfully fallen.
For Meek Mill’s case, his prison sentence might set back Philadelphia’s criminal justice reform experiment—an experiment that depends in no small part on the trust of the communities that have been most ravaged by the mass incarceration crisis. But it affects the trust of the general public also. The wealthy Philadelphia-based entrepreneur Michael Rubin said in response to Williams’ last sentencing: “For the first time in my life, I’ve lost complete faith in the justice system.” You know it’s bad when a billionaire resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute says that. If the city lost that guy’s trust, imagine how Williams’ peers in the streets of Philadelphia feel.