Meek Mill’s decade-long probation showed how broken America’s justice system is

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Meek Mill speaks to supporters during a rally for criminal justice reform on August 27, 2019. | Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

The Philadelphia rapper had been caught in America’s probation system for years. On Tuesday, his case finally came to an end.

In 2017, the imprisonment of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill for minor probation violations served as a rallying cry for racial justice advocates and celebrities focused on the justice system’s treatment of African Americans.

Nearly two years later, the 32-year-old rapper is finally free.

On August 27, Mill agreed to plead guilty to possession of a firearm in exchange for having all other charges against him dropped. Mill will not be required to serve any additional time behind bars, bringing an end to a high-profile legal battle that has stretched on for more than a decade.

The announcement comes a month after the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that Mill’s 2008 conviction on gun and drug charges should be vacated, saying that the case had been riddled with problems, including testimony from a discredited police officer and overly punitive rulings from Judge Genece Brinkley, who oversaw the case from the beginning. The ruling meant that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office would need to fully retry Mill, and on Tuesday, the office announced that it would not do so.

Mill’s fight in the justice system began to see increased attention in November 2017, when Brinkley sentenced him to serve two to four years in prison after violating the terms of his probation. The rapper’s rise has been haunted by a 2007 arrest, followed by close court supervision, multiple minor probation violations, and periods of incarceration at various points.

His difficulties prompted fierce support from justice advocates and Mill’s celebrity supporters argued that at a time when police violence, mass incarceration, and harsh sentencing continue to disproportionately affect people of color, Mill’s case was an all-too-normal tale of the potential harms of America’s probation system: A single infraction can affect a person for years after they have served time due to an extensive web of supervision and the courts’ ability to put someone back behind bars for even minimal offenses.

“His case is highlighting how messed up the system is,” Clarise McCants, the criminal justice campaign director for Color of Change, told me in 2018. “A lot of people think of probation and parole as a get out of jail free card, but it’s not.”

As outrage over Mill’s case grew last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that he be released from prison on bail. In the year since, Mill has become a leading celebrity advocate for criminal justice reform, saying that his case showed him how harsh the system can be and why reforming it is necessary.

On Tuesday, Mill celebrated the end of his case. “I’m extremely grateful that my long legal battle is finally behind me,” he tweeted. “And I appreciate that it has sparked a much-needed discussion about probation reform and the inequalities that exist within our two Americas.”

Meek Mill was arrested in 2007. It followed him for more than a decade.

To truly understand what made Mill’s case so prominent, it’s helpful to revisit how it all started.

In 2007, Robert Williams, still a teenager, wasn’t yet Meek Mill, although he was already held in high regard as a local Philadelphia battle rapper. In January 2007 a police officer named Reginald Graham, who worked with a Philadelphia narcotics unit, claimed to have seen Williams selling crack cocaine. The next day when Graham and another officer approached Williams while he walked from a relative’s home to a local corner store, everything changed.

Accounts given by officers at the time allege that Williams pulled out a gun and pointed it at them. When Williams attempted to run, the officers quickly caught up. Williams was struck by officers and appears visibly injured in a mug shot taken at that time; officers have said the injuries were the result of his resisting arrest.

The rapper’s account of events is somewhat different. He doesn’t deny having had a gun but says he never pointed it at police and instead ditched it as officers approached. He also argues that the officers used excessive force, going so far as to use his head as a battering ram to gain entry into his relative’s home. I had “a concussion, stitches, braids ripped out,” Mill told Billboard in 2015. “My blood was on the ceiling, on the floor.”

What is for certain is that in 2008, Williams faced multiple gun and drug charges. In 2009 Judge Brinkley, whose Philadelphia court would become a recurring setting in Williams’s legal saga, sentenced him to serve 11 to 23 months in county prison. Williams left prison after five months and was placed on house arrest for a brief period. He also was placed on probation for five years.

Meek Mill speaks to supporters during a Stand with Meek Mill rally in Philadelphia on June 18, 2018.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage via Getty Images
Meek Mill speaks to supporters during a Stand With Meek Mill rally in Philadelphia on June 18, 2018.

In the years that followed, after Williams secured a record deal and had a platinum-selling debut album called Dreams and Nightmares, he contemplated the prospect of touring the country but continued to face strict probation requirements. In 2012 after Mill was arrested on suspected marijuana use, Brinkley briefly barred him from touring. In 2014 he was sentenced to serve three to six months in prison for failing to have his travel plans approved by the court, tweeting negatively about his probation officer, and being “disrespectful.”

Mill faced additional punishments in 2015 and 2016 for probation violations and had more years added onto the initial five-year probationary period. Mill’s team argued that Brinkley was being too strict about relatively minor infractions.

In 2017, two events would prove to be the final straw in Brinkley’s eyes. In March, Mill was involved in a fight at a St. Louis airport. In August, he was seen popping wheelies on a dirt bike as he drove down a New York City street. Mill was charged with misdemeanor assault for the airport incident and reckless endangerment for what transpired in New York. The first charge was later dismissed, and a court said it would drop the reckless endangerment charge if Mill kept out of trouble for six months.

But Brinkley argued that Mill had been given too many chances, sentencing him in November 2017 to serve two to four years in prison as a result of his probation violations, unapproved travel, and a failed drug test. That decision arrived despite the advice of prosecutors and his probation officer. One month later Brinkley denied him bail, arguing that the rapper was a “danger to the community” and a flight risk.

The birth of the #FreeMeekMill movement

At that point, Mill’s ongoing legal troubles began drawing attention from supporters in the music industry. Fellow rappers like Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and T.I. called for Mill to be released from prison. Beleaguered former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick tweeted about the rapper’s incarceration, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft visited Mill in prison along with 76ers owner Michael Rubin. Fans posted messages of support, uniting under the banner of #FreeMeekMill.

Mill, his supporters argued, was being treated unfairly by a justice system that had closely monitored him for the better part of a decade. “He’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside,” Jay-Z wrote in a New York Times op-ed published in November 2017.

A movement quickly grew. Philadelphia, racial justice advocates noted, had the highest numbers in the state when it came to people on probation or parole being reincarcerated, and often this resulted from technical violations. And nationally, roughly one-third of the more than 4 million people on probation or parole are black.

While advocates moved to make the #FreeMeekMill movement symbolic of broader sentencing issues in the justice system, Mill’s lawyers worked to get their client released from prison. They began by pointing at Brinkley, alleging that the judge carried a “vendetta” against the rapper and her refusal to let Mill out on bail indicated that she needed to be removed from the case. The judge, meanwhile, has maintained that she has been fair in her decisions and that punishments occurred because Mill, by repeatedly violating the strict terms of his probation, “thumbed [his] nose at” the court.

“He’s been on probation for nearly 10 years,” Joe Tacopina, one of Mill’s lawyers, told CNN in 2017. “Nobody goes on probation for 10 years.” In June the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a split ruling on the matter, allowing Brinkley to remain on Mill’s case.

In an April 2018 opinion filed with the state supreme court, Brinkley refused to recuse herself and defended herself from allegations of misconduct; she argued that Mill’s sentence was “reasonable” and “appropriate.” A representative for Brinkley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As questions and allegations swirled about Brinkley’s behavior, new information made Mill’s legal team skeptical about the testimony of Reginald Graham, the officer who had arrested the rapper in 2007. According to a March 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer report, Graham’s name appeared on a list of officers suspected of framing witnesses and lying in court. A Philadelphia judge dismissed several cases that hinged on Graham’s testimony. Graham retired from the Philadelphia Police Department in 2017 and has remained fairly quiet about this matter, limiting his comments to an extensive June 2018 Philadelphia Magazine article. “I stand by all my testimony, every word,” he told the outlet.

Mill’s lawyers have alleged that Graham’s testimony in their client’s trial was also false, pointing to affidavits from another officer that seem to contradict Graham’s testimony. In 2018, the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that it did not oppose Mill’s release on bail. The office argued that given questions about Graham’s credibility, the district attorney was unsure that Mill’s prior conviction would hold up on appeal. (A civil rights attorney, Krasner was elected after promising to reform the city’s criminal justice system.) In April 2018, after Mill served five months in prison, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that Mill be released.

Racial justice advocates say Mill’s case is representative of black defendants’ struggles with the probation system

Mill’s case has drawn considerable attention, with racial justice advocates arguing that the rapper’s issues are symbolic of broader problems in the justice system.

A 2014 study by the Urban Institute, for example, found that black people on probation are more likely than whites or Hispanics to have their probation revoked. The research suggested that this disparity could not be fully explained even when accounting for the differences in the crimes committed and concerns about the risks of letting people remain out of prison.


Paras Griffin/VMN18/Getty Images for BET
Meek Mill performs “Stay Woke,” a single about racial injustice, during the 2018 BET Awards in Los Angeles.

Pennsylvania has one of the highest rates in the nation when it comes to keeping people under court supervision after their release. According to a 2018 analysis by the Columbia University Justice Lab, the Keystone State has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast and has experienced significant increases even as the rates in states like New York and New Jersey have declined. “As U.S. community supervision rates are five to ten times the rate of European countries, Pennsylvania supervises its citizens at one of the highest rates in the Western world,” the analysis noted.

In fact, the number of people on parole in Pennsylvania is actually increasing, and many of those on parole are finding themselves being placed back behind bars. Roughly one-third of prisoners in the state are behind bars for probation or parole violations, according to a 2017 report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

“In Pennsylvania, the way that it works is that you can keep getting time added onto your probation and it doesn’t give anybody a fair chance to live,” said McCants of Color of Change. “If you constantly have someone looking over your shoulder, punishing you for very small minuscule things like being late to a meeting, there’s no way to think that over a 10-year span, someone would never have some sort of violation.”

Mill’s incarceration helped call attention to these disparities and fueled a renewed push for reforms. In May 2018, he appeared alongside Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, as politicians discussed a number of proposals, including one that would make six months the maximum amount of time a person could be confined for probation violations. Other proposed legislation is aimed at tackling other reforms, like coming up with better funding to support indigent defendants.

These are just some of the reforms that groups like Color of Change are calling for. McCants told me that another major goal is to end the use of pretrial probation detainers, which allow a person to be immediately jailed for a probation violation.

In the year since his release, Mill has pledged to continue to push for criminal justice reform in the hopes that others can avoid being placed in his situation. Earlier this year, he partnered with Jay-Z as founding members of the REFORM Alliance, a group that seeks to limit the number of people serving unfair probation and parole sentences. The group is currently pushing for the passage of legislation that would reform Pennsylvania’s probation and parole system and has raised millions to promote criminal justice reform.

As Mill celebrated the end of his legal fight on Tuesday, Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney, argued that more work needed to be done. “The most important lesson coming out of it,” he said, “is that just as [Mill] has evolved in the last 10-plus years, the criminal justice system also needs to evolve.”