WASHINGTON — Rapper Meek Mill’s epic probation battles point to broader problems that continue to plague the criminal justice system, according to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf spoke in a hotel conference room here Saturday during a meeting held by the National Governors Association, where he touted his state’s prison reform efforts and called for more sweeping changes.
The Democratic Pennsylvania governor, a former businessman, criticized a system that keeps people in prison and out of the workforce “simply because they might have made a mistake early on.” And he cautioned against imposing probations that are too long to be effective, pointing to Mill’s case.
Mill, a Philadelphia native, has been a key figure in the national debate about criminal justice reform in recent years. The chart-topping rapper’s legal drama dates back to a 2007 arrest, followed by a 2009 sentencing on gun and drug charges, Vox reported. He was punished several times after that for probation violations, and in 2017, he faced reckless endangerment charges after he was seen popping wheelies on a dirt bike in New York City.
Mill “was confined to 14 years of probation, and his last infraction was popping a wheelie,” Wolf said Saturday. “That’s the kind of thing that is just wrong, but it’s also not very smart.”
Pennsylvania has no caps on how long people can be on probation. That’s a problem, according to Wolf.
That “means that someone like Meek Mill, who does a wheelie, and the judge just apparently doesn’t like Meek Mill — you end up with 14 years being on probation with no end in sight.”
Wolf added, “I’m not sure why that would matter in any case, but it certainly doesn’t help Meek Mill, who is ready and able to make a great contribution to our society. It doesn’t help anybody who’s in a position to get back into the swing of things, help their family, help their community, help their economy. All those things are thwarted by having a bad criminal justice system.”
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After a court ordered Mill’s early release from prison last year, the rapper appeared with Wolf at a news conference urging state lawmakers to enact criminal justice reforms, the Associated Press reported.
Wolf, who led a kitchen cabinet and building products company before he was elected in 2014, traces his interest in criminal justice reform back to the private sector.
“Like most businesspeople, for most of the time that I was in business, I automatically excluded anybody who had any brush with the law. We did a background check, you had a record, you did anything, you were out. We didn’t even interview you,” he said.
About six or seven years ago, his company decided to change that “to say, ‘Let’s give a second chance here, see what happens,’” Wolf said. “And we found that they made for better employees. … They’re trying to prove something.”
Wolf spoke with CNN commentator Van Jones, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and a vocal supporter of criminal justice reform. Also on the panel was Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who recounted how he urged President Donald Trump to support a criminal justice overhaul effort.
Bryant recalled how Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, convened a meeting in Bedminster, N.J., home to the Trump National Golf Club.
“The president came in and he said, ‘Alright Jared, you got me here, I really don’t want to do this,’” Bryant said.
“After the meeting, I went and talked to him and said, ‘You’re the only president that can do this. You’re the only guy that can do this. President Obama couldn’t have done it, because quite honestly, a lot of us probably would have — people would have screamed and hollered, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s going to turn them all out on our communities and there’s going to be pillaging and crime and there they go again.’”
Trump signed the bipartisan reform bill into law in December, winning him praise even from the liberal activist Jones and others on the left.
“This is the holy grail of politics,” Wolf said Saturday. “You can bring extreme right and extreme left together because it’s not only fair, it’s smart and it actually gets people back into the economy.” He added, “Everything we do in criminal justice reform is a jobs bill.”
Speaking to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), Wolf hailed that state’s efforts to decriminalize possession of some drugs. “I think what you’ve done is really important,” he told her.
Beyond that, Wolf called for a broader look at mandatory minimum sentences.
“I think we need to actually move back from the stuff we were doing 20 years ago in this country across the board, not just in possession of small amounts of things like marijuana, but decriminalize a lot of activities that really should not have been criminalized in the first place.”