Meek Mill is a free man, and everyone knows it. A week ago at around 6:30 PM on Monday, authorities at the state prison in Chester, PA obeyed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s order from earlier that day and released a jubilant Mill. He was picked up by Philadelphia Sixers owner Michael Rubin, and they flew by helicopter to the Sixers playoff game against the Heat. At the game, Meek met with players in the locker room beforehand, rang the Sixers’ ceremonial bell to kick off the game, and sat courtside with comedian Kevin Hart. Everyone knew about Meek’s case, and its injustice garnered the support of many. Jay-Z penned an Op-Ed in The New York Times. The Mayor of Philly visited him one-on-one in prison. He had the support of the Governor of Pennsylvania, New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, and eventually the newly-elected prosecuting attorney in Meek’s case even supported his released. On top of the cast of celebrity supporters, Meek’s case became a rallying cry for those who seek to reform a broken justice system.
Meek Mill certainly isn’t your average prisoner, and that his case is so well-known is atypical. Everyone knows about Meek Mill because he is a famous and talented musician who has been and still is the victim of injustice. His case should be a rallying cry, and his release should be celebrated.
But when you remove the fact that Meek’s a celebrity, his case is downright normal in the American criminal justice system. His experience on probation and ultimate imprisonment aren’t unique. He’s a black man that was charged and convicted with crimes carrying incredibly harsh sentences, imprisoned, monitored on probation and made to comply with sometimes unrealistic and more often needless conditions, and then re-imprisoned when he couldn’t keep up with the court’s demands. While we celebrate Meek’s release, we must remember that millions like him continue to struggle on probation, and many find themselves languishing in cages after they can’t keep up. Our criminal justice system simply doesn’t live up to the promise of a free society.
Meek’s case goes all the way back to January of 2007, when he was arrested at 19 years old on drug and gun charges. Judge Genece Brinkley found Meek guilty of some of those charges, the most serious of which carried up to 15 years in prison. He served five months was placed on probation for eight years, which is when Meek’s saga really began.
Over the years that followed, Meek struggled to keep up with Judge Brinkley’s probation conditions, but largely stayed out of trouble. Meek’s case was a roller coaster of travel restrictions, minor violations, and short stints in custody and on house arrest. Eventually, Judge Brinkley revoked his probation and sent him to prison because of two minor cases he caught in other states, both of which were dismissed because they were so minor. Over a decade after his initial arrest, neither the prosecutor nor the probation officer asked that Meek be imprisoned, but Judge Brinkley said she had given him “break after break” and to the shock of Meek, his attorneys, and the world, sentenced him to two to four years in prison.
That’s Meek’s story, but if you replaced his name and his occupation, you need look no farther than your local county courthouse to hear it again and again, day after day.
In 2015, there were nearly 3.8 million American adults on probation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. One in 66 adults were on probation that year. Over half were on probation for felonies that carried penalties like Meek’s case. That’s just probation, even more are in prison or on parole, which is like probation but it comes after prison and you have even less rights. In 2015, one in 37 adults was on probation, in prison, or on parole. In Georgia, the worst of the states, more than one in every 15 adults is on probation, in prison, or on parole. In Meek’s Pennsylvania, it’s about one in every 27 adults. The government is exerting control over a lot of people. Worse yet, in a country whose population is about 12 percent black, 30 percent of those on probation are black. One in three black men born in America in 2001 are going to be incarcerated at some point, as opposed to one in 17 white men. Rates among Hispanic/latinos and American Indians are also disproportional.
To be placed on probation you’ve got to plead guilty or be found guilty of a crime. Most people plead guilty by negotiating with the prosecutors. There are a lot of reasons for this, but a big one is that going to trial is risky (remember how Meek was facing 15 years? Judge Brinkley could have given him that with little hope of it being overturned on appeal). When people take deals, they limit their risk of a long sentence. No matter how it comes about, probation is a carrot and a stick: the carrot is staying out of jail, and the stick is the lengthy possible sentence that can be imposed upon violations. The theory goes that the ball is in the defendant’s proverbial court.
Once you’re on probation, your rights are substantially curtailed though. Judges have wide latitude to impose sentences and conditions of those sentences (for instance, at one point Meek was ordered to complete classes on how to be more polite). Common and perfectly legal conditions include prohibiting travel, prohibiting contact with street gang members, prohibiting association with other felons or probationers, not using any drugs or alcohol (even when alcohol isn’t related to the offense), and reporting to your probation officer on short notice.
When the Court prohibited Meek Mill from travelling, it seriously harmed his ability to make money—and in his case, lots of money. Now imagine a day laborer who lives on the South Side of Chicago, he can’t go a few miles to Indiana for a job. Imagine an auto parts delivery driver in Meek’s Philly, he can’t cross the river to deliver in New Jersey or head along it to drop some parts off in Delaware. These easy to imagine examples are all too common, and the financial impact is much more significant in their working class lives than the impact was in Meek’s life. In those two examples, it would be pretty tempting to break the rules and provide for your family, wouldn’t it?
Now take prohibiting association with other felons, a common condition in many places. Last year, a University of Georgia study estimated that 33 percent of the black adult male population in the United States has a felony conviction. Seems like it would be pretty hard to live in your majority black neighborhood if this condition was imposed upon you. When judges expect the unrealistic–like avoiding a third of the men on your block–probationers are set up for failure. And even if a condition is imposed with good intentions, that doesn’t make it fair. For instance, it may not be the healthiest thing to use marijuana as your main stress reliever, but a probationer whose crime wasn’t motivated by drug addiction shouldn’t be imprisoned because he uses it that way (especially as marijuana itself is legalized in more places across the country). These are just a few examples, it would be impossible to list all possible probation conditions and potential pitfalls.
On top of unrealistic conditions, the process by which courts decide whether someone has violated probation is an unfair one. In many states, the probation officer has the power to simply imprison you without immediate judicial review. When a judge finally does look at the alleged violations, her decision will be made after a hearing in which your rights are diminished and the amount of evidence and convincing the judge needs (called the burden of proof) is low—a preponderance of the evidence, which means she only has to find that it’s more likely than not that you violated your probation terms. Then, the decision whether to actually send you back into custody is solely the judge’s, as was made clear when Judge Brinkley sentenced Meek to prison when no one was asking for it.
Jay-Z said that the criminal justice system “stalks black people like Meek Mill.” When you look at how it all works, and upon whom we as a society are imposing these rules, it’s pretty hard to argue with that. Our so-called criminal justice system isn’t fair to anyone, but it’s far worse if you’re a person of color. And really, we’ve got nothing to show for it. Americans imprison more people per-capita than every other country in the world. We imprison almost five times as many people per-capita than the United Kingdom, another western democracy. Our crime rates are not significantly lower than comparable stable democracies that imprison far fewer people.
Meek committed a crime over 11 years ago and spent five months in jail for it when he was 19, then started his long road of trying to please Judge Brinkley, a task that may never have been possible. We as a society, through Judge Brinkley, put a 30-year-old Meek Mill in a cage for two to four years for minor violations of his probation, and if not for an unlikely confluence of events he would still be there with no meaningful chance of his sentence being overturned. Luckily, Meek’s fame showed everyone how awful the system can be. He’s out now, and he says his plan is “to use my platform to shine a light on those issues.” We all need to join him, because we all live in a society in which millions struggle with their onerous probation requirements, and thousands sit in cages because they couldn’t please the Judge Brinkley’s of the world. Is Meek really free in that world? Are any of us?
Jack Idlas is an attorney working as a public defender in the Chicago area. Follow him on Twitter.