In November 2017, rapper Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating parole. Since 2007, the artist had numerous interactions with the criminal justice system in and around his hometown of Philadelphia. In 2008, he was arrested for carrying a gun, a misdemeanor that usually warrants a fine and house arrest, but Mill was sentenced to two years in prison and eight years of probation. Over time, the same judge continued to find him guilty of violating probation on technicalities–for traveling across state lines for tours or in some cases, across Philadelphia, and in his most recent case, for popping a wheelie on a bicycle.
The conversation around criminal justice reform tends to revolve around the 2.2 million people currently in prison or jail, but an additional 4.5 million people in the U.S. are on parole and probation, and many find themselves reincarcerated for small technical violations. The system’s design makes it near impossible to break out of, and the impacts of it are rarely discussed.
Mill’s trial changed that. His high-profile case brought out a wave of support from people like Jay-Z and Colin Kaepernick. For Michael Rubin, the co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and the executive chairman of TK Fanatics, Mill’s case was eye-opening. “It really changed for me in November 2017 when I saw Meek get sentenced to prison for really not committing a crime, and against the recommendations of the district attorney and the parole officer,” Rubin says. “At first, I thought this was something that was unique to Meek’s case,” Rubin adds, but as he realized the struggle Mill faced to get out of prison, he learned that this was a widespread issue. “This is a fundamentally broken system,” Rubin says. “My daily conversations with Meek went from, ‘How are we going to get you out of prison?’ to, ‘The whole system is broken and as soon as you get out of prison, how do we take on the overall problem?'”
Mill was released from prison on bail in April 2018. As soon as he got out, Rubin says, they started building an organization to counteract the injustices that Mill faced in his long interaction with the justice system. The REFORM Alliance, announced today, aims to dramatically reduce the number of people living under unreasonable probation and parole sentences, and in turn, free people from the cycle of incarceration. Van Jones, CNN host and founder of numerous organizations, including the criminal justice reform nonprofit #Cut50, will serve as CEO.
— Van Jones (@VanJones68) January 23, 2019
“This is the culmination of my entire life’s work, as far as I’m concerned,” Jones tells Fast Company. Throughout his work as an attorney and a founder of organizations like the Dream Corps and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, he’s been focused on building pathways out of the justice system for people most vulnerable to it–namely, people of color. Jones has been in the justice reform field for his whole career. “I know what’s happening, and who’s doing what, and there just has not been a coordinated effort around probation and parole,” he says. Most people, he adds, are unaware that people can be reincarcerated under probation for something as little as being late to a meeting or crossing a city boundary.
“Rather than giving people a springboard to success, probation and parole is a trapdoor to failure,” Jones says. To counteract that, the REFORM Alliance will work with states and local jurisdictions to pass common-sense probation and parole reform laws. One of the main goals is to put a cap on the amount of time people are sentenced to parole, Jones says. Eight-year probations, like Mill’s, keep people trapped, so a logical first step to reform would be to reduce that total to something like two years. If someone commits a new crime while on probation, Jones says, they should get a new sentence, but so many of the technical actions that constitute probation violation today simply do not warrant reincarceration.
Furthermore, probation and parole often prevent people from getting the help they need. If someone violates probation on drug charges, Rubin says, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to be diverted into therapy or counseling, rather than back to prison?
The REFORM Alliance has the backing of a range of powerful people from the sports and entertainment industries, including Jay-Z, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, Kraft Group CEO and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Third Point LLC CEO Daniel Loeb, Galaxy Digital CEO and founder Michael Novogratz, and Vista Equity Partners founder Robert Smith.
“We looked to get together a diverse group of people who had three things in common,” Rubin says. “One: They were deeply passionate about this issue. Two: They had large capital they could put behind it. And three: They had large individual platforms that could help raise awareness of the problem.” In addition to working with local district attorneys and states to implement probation and parole reform policies, the REFORM Alliance wants to better educate the public about the consequences of the system as it currently stands. The organization’s founding partners will use their social media platforms to roll out an educational campaign around probation and parole that tells the stories of people who have interacted with the system, and demonstrates how it fails people and their communities. They’ll also use their platforms to share the work of artists and activists already working in this space.
In its first few months, the REFORM Alliance will be focused specifically on Pennsylvania and New York, and on passing probation and parole reform policies there, Jones says. “The legislation is important to get right, especially these first few bills,” he adds. “But I think the inspiration is going to be as important as the legislation, and I think you’re going to see people learning about this and going out there wanting to fix it.”