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An Open Letter to Meek Mill: Pa. needs real probation reform | Opinion

We need real probation reform. The bill now before the General Assembly isn’t it

Rapper Meek Mill joins Pennsylvania lawmakers to support probation and parole reform. (Capital-Star photo by Nick Field)

By Reuben Jones

Dear Meek Mill,

I wanted to speak to you directly about probation reform and how disappointed I am with the efforts of your organization, REFORM.  After all, you are the reason many of us rallied around reforming probation in the first place. Most people didn’t even know that a person could go to jail without actually committing a crime, let alone spend 10 years on probation. Your arrest made national headlines.

People rallied around you and demanded justice. Celebrities. Preachers. Politicians. And most importantly, your formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, including myself. Everybody was on your side. We made “Free Meek” our rally cry.

I believed that you deserved the right to be released, to be home with your family. I believed that the system was wrong and needed an overhaul. I believed we needed to fight not just for you, but for all Pennsylvanians that continue to suffer under the invisible shackles of probation.

And, as a result of our movement effort, you were finally released. Now, a little over a year later, I am disappointed in how your allies at REFORM have trampled over the voices of formerly incarcerated leaders like myself and sacrificed Black Philadelphians trapped in the same cycle of probation you were, in order to win passage of a probation reform bill (SB913) now before the House Judiciary Committee.

When REFORM was announced, it was met with both skepticism and hope. The skepticism came because billionaires are not usually reformers, but there was hope because you had lived experience and those of us who did as well hoped the organization would listen to formerly incarcerated experts and advocates.

Pa. Senate approves bill reforming probation system, sends to House for consideration

After assembling their star power and a $50 million budget, REFORM announced that they would be leading the charge for probation reform in Pennsylvania. Two probation bills were crafted. Both were immediately opposed by community organizers. Neither went far enough to create the kind of transformative reforms that could begin to right decades of harm visited on Black Pennsylvanians by the probation system. Neither bill passed.

We breathed a sigh of relief because we preferred no bill to a bill that contributed to expanding the carceral system. Then came SB913, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairperson Lisa Baker, a conservative Republican from Luzerne County.

Over 40 organizations across the state opposed the bill, but it moved through the Senate floor quickly. REFORM proudly endorsed the bill. Quickly, it has become clear that the organization was largely concerned only with getting “wins” at any cost.

Let’s be clear, Pennsylvania is in desperate need of substantive probation reform capable of transforming the current carceral system into one that is more humane and restorative.

Right now, probation violations amount to more than 50 percent of the jail population, disproportionately Black people, who are incarcerated not for new crimes, but for probation violations. We deserve a system that allows people  an opportunity to grow and earn their way back into society.

We hoped to create legislation that would prevent people from being on probation for years and years like you were and prevent judges from stacking sentences in ways that amounted to indefinite probation. We hoped to end the use of technical violations to incarcerate people when no new crime was committed. We wanted clear limits to the amount of time a person could be subject to probation.

We wanted real reform.

So, when your organization claims that the bill narrows incarceration for technicals and provides pathways to probation termination, I am appalled.

The bill’s language is so ambiguous that it could actually have the opposite impact. It allows any and all law enforcement to arrest and detain people on probation, raising the prospect that people will be violated in whole new ways is on the horizon. And it creates new barriers to extricating people from probation’s grip.

Is that your intent?  If so, I am very disappointed.

It is especially curious because Baker’s proposal would not benefit you, even though you are the poster child for Pennsylvania’s whole probation reform movement? In fact, the Senate bill will not benefit the overwhelming majority of Black people on probation in Philadelphia who are trapped on probation.

In my heart, I want to believe that that’s not your intent. We had so much hope for you. We believed you would bring all those resources to the table in order to change the culture in this city. We still believe you can. That is why we continue to fight the bill: with the hope that one day, perhaps with your help, Pennsylvania will create transformative probation reform.

Reuben Jones is the executive director of Frontline Dads and the Pennsylvania policy lead for Dignity and Power Now! He writes from Philadelphia. 

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