Meek Mill pushes for criminal-justice reform: 'I made a commitment to speak for the voiceless'

Rapper Meek Mill leaves a news conference promoting Gov. Tom Wolf's proposals to reform the criminal justice system at the National Constitution Center on Thursday, May 3, 2018.

Just last week, Meek Mill was serving a two- to four-year sentence at the Chester state prison for a probation violation before being released on bail by order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

On Thursday, he found himself in a very different position: appearing alongside Gov. Wolf, a half-dozen state lawmakers, and his supporter Michael Rubin, a co-owner of the 76ers, at the National Constitution Center to push for criminal justice reform — including a proposal to change practices that have placed 296,000 Pennsylvanians under supervision for years on end, at a rate that is among the highest in the nation.

“What I went through is terrible, but I think it’s a path God put me on for a better time, like right now. It’s surreal to be in this situation like this — to be with Gov. Wolf talking about criminal justice reform,” said Mill, 30, standing in a crisp suit.

“I actually made a commitment to speaking for the voiceless. I spent time with these men and women, and watched families being broken apart because of addiction, mental illness, technical violations.”

Proposals on the table include changes to probation laws that allowed Mill’s judge to extend his supervision multiple times over the last decade and to resentence him to imprisonment on three occasions.

“This case thrust Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system into the national spotlight,” Wolf said. He added: “We know that there are a lot more like Meek in our prisons.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Meek Mill speaks about criminal justice reform next to Gov. Tom Wolf at the National Constitution Center.

Wolf’s wish list also includes funding defense of the indigent (Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t do so); increasing access to expungements; and passing a justice reinvestment package that is said would save $55 million annually by instituting automatic parole for people serving short sentences.

Legislation already introduced includes a bill to limit confinement for probation violations to no more than six months, and another that would limit terms for which judges can resentence people found in violation of their probation. Now, violators can be resentenced up to the statutory maximum for their initial conviction no matter how much time has passed.

The Twists and Turns
Of Meek Mill’s Case

Meek Mill has been imprisoned three times and found to have violated his parole twice since his arrest in Southwest Philadelphia in 2007 on drug and weapons charges. Click here for a chronology of Mill’s controversial case.

“If that was me in Starbucks, on probation, I would have been actually in technical violation and would have still been able to legally be sentenced to two to four years in prison,” Mill said, “just because I came into contact with police.”

He was referencing the case of two men arrested in April in a Center City coffee shop after they refused to immediately leave or make a purchase. Mill called it “Starbucksing while black.”

Mill, trailed by a camera crew for a six-part documentary series being shot for Amazon, was there to provide firsthand testimony.

“I always feel like my freedom could be taken,” said Mill, adding that he’d been advised by his lawyers not to speak publicly.

But he said he thinks he’s in the best position to highlight this issue. “I’ve been tangled in the system since I was 18 years old,” said Mill.

He described how the “ruthless environment” where he grew up in North Philadelphia trained him “to think going to prison was normal.”

Now, he said, he wants to use his experience to make history.

Immediately after the news conference, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association issued a statement attributed to Berks County District Attorney John Adams: “We cannot … let one individual under very unique circumstances indict an entire system. … We caution against the wholesale elimination of appropriate consequences and accountability in the criminal justice system, cloaked in the concept of reform.”

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, a former Philadelphia public defender, said people who commit serious crimes should face justice; the changes she wants to see would help those picked up for minor violations.

To that end, she was hopeful Mill’s voice could amplify causes she has long advocated, like funding public defenders.

“His story is helping, because it’s putting a big spotlight on an issue for so many people who don’t have his name, his platform, his media, his celebrity status,” she said. “It’s important because I represented many Meek Mills in front of so many different judges who would not listen to me when I said it’s better for them to keep their job and stay with their children and stay intact with their families.”