Earlier this month a rapper, Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison for probation violations. Back in 2008, the now 30-year-old was convicted on charges related to possession of guns and drugs, and served eight months in prison. He was then placed on probation for five years, a period that has been extended several times.
Jay-Z in a column this week in the NY Times lays out for all to see what many people who get caught up in the criminal justice have to deal with on a regular basis. I always cringe when attorneys take plea deals for probation in sketchy cases, because, once in the system, small things can turn into big problems.
As Jay-Z puts it: “On the surface, this may look like the story of yet another criminal rapper who didn’t smarten up and is back where he started.” But, as he points out, Meek Mill was just 19 when he was convicted, he’s now 30 and has been on probation for his entire adult life.
“For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside,” he writes. And that is what this case shows.
Jay-Z writes: “What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day. I saw this up close when I
was growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s.”
He argues and quite correctly: “Instead of a second chance, probation ends up being a land mine, with a random misstep bringing consequences greater than the crime. A person on probation can end up in jail over a technical violation like missing a curfew.”
Jay-Z rightly points out that taxpayers in Meek Mill’s hometown now will be spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep him locked up, while doing so does nothing to make anyone safer.
So, what is Meek Mill being put into jail for? “In March, he was arrested after an altercation in a St. Louis airport. After video of what had actually happened was released, all charges were dropped against Meek.”
Then, “In August, he was arrested for popping a wheelie on a motorcycle on his video set in New York. Those charges will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble.”
As Jay-Z writes: “Think about that. The charges were either dropped or dismissed, but the judge sent him to prison anyway.”
He continues: “The specifics of Meek’s case inspired me to write this. But it’s time we highlight the random ways people trapped in the criminal justice system are punished every day. The system treats them as a danger to society, consistently monitors and follows them for any minor infraction — with the goal of putting them back in prison.”
Jay-Z then focuses more broadly: “As of 2015, one-third of the 4.65 million Americans who were on some form of parole or probation were black. Black people are sent to prison for probation and parole violations at much higher rates than white people.”
He continued: “In Pennsylvania, hundreds of thousands of people are on probation or parole. About half of the people in city jails in Philadelphia are there for probation or parole violations. We could literally shut down jails if we treated people on parole or probation more fairly.
“And that’s what we need to fight for in Philadelphia and across the country. The racial-justice organization Color of Change is working with people in Philadelphia to pressure the courts there and make that vision a reality. Probation is a trap and we must fight for Meek and everyone else unjustly sent to prison.”
The attorney for Meek Mill, Joe Tacopina, told the New York Times earlier this month that the judge has “behaved inappropriately over the course of the case.” He said, “She’s exhibited enormous bias.”
Lest you think that’s lawyer-speak, the judge actually overruled both the probation officer and the prosecutor – who both recommended against prison time.
The Meek Mill case may be an extreme example, but it demonstrates what happens all the time when people get caught up in the criminal justice system.
—David M. Greenwald reporting