*Coauthored and with research help from Justice Program intern Ty Parks.
Meek Mill is free — for now.
In and out of prison for the last decade, the songwriter and recording artist is out on bail after being detained last year on probation violations. His case is ongoing, and there’s no assurance that he won’t wind up back behind bars.
Like millions of people — particularly young men of color — Mill has been swept up in the cycle of incarceration. Despite the fanfare, his story is tragically ordinary. But it suggests that major reforms to the way we implement probation (community supervision in lieu of or in combination with prison time) and parole (community supervision after someone is released from prison) may keep many Americans from being unnecessarily incarcerated.
For Mill, his trouble started with a 2008 conviction for gun possession. There is some evidence that the original conviction was itself a mistake; the newly-elected Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Mill may have been unjustly convicted based on false police testimony, a rare thing for a lead prosecutor to even suggest.
Mill spent time in prison, and upon release faced repeated entanglements so many people convicted of a crime endure. He was put on probation, failed drug tests, and was eventually prohibited from leaving Philadelphia, a nearly impossible condition for a performing artist who regularly tours the country. Late last year, a judge sent him to prison for violating terms of his release.
Probation and parole should be designed to get people back on track – not ensure they end up back in jail. But for Mill, being on parole and then probation led to restrictions and court appearances that stretched on for nearly a decade and eventually landed him back behind bars.
Rather than a means of rehabilitation, parole for Mill turned into another pathway back to prison — failing him, and so many others, at its stated purpose.
But prosecutors and judges can change that. And to his credit, Krasner is trying. Last month, he sent a memo calling on them to rethink both arrests and their use of parole and probation. Among his recommendations to prosecutors:
- Request shorter probation/parole sentences;
- Avoid using prison for minor (“technical”) parole or probation violations, and;
- Decline to charge someone with violating parole or probation due to marijuana use (one of the very things that landed Mill back in prison).
These three changes alone would have spared Mill his senseless return trip (detrimental to him but also incredibly costly for taxpayers), and could have major effects on Philadelphia and the nation. The entire approach is a new one that could both enhance community safety, and help people transition back from prison into everyday life. Krasner’s rethinking of local priorities comes amid recommendations released by the Brennan Center, describing how prosecutors can help reduce mass incarceration, and a new joint initiative with Fair and Just Prosecution to train prosecutors around a reform-oriented mission.
Meek Mill’s story is troubling because of how normal it is. Sixty thousand people land back in prison for minor parole violations every year. But his story also illustrates a way forward. His success is based on many factors, but a progressive voice on the prosecutorial side was extremely helpful. Voters in Philadelphia made that happen. Voters across the country can do the same.