When a Philadelphia judge sentenced Meek Mill this month to time in state prison, people took notice. Op-eds and articles rushed to catch up readers on the rapper’s 10-year grappling with probation, while celebrities and advocates of criminal justice reform including Jay-Z, Julius Erving, Colin Kaepernick, members of the Eagles and chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey decried the two- to four-year sentence. What makes this different from the usual conversations about the tragedy of incarceration is that this time, people are talking about prison’s unwieldy twin: excessive court supervision.
You might not think a hip-hop celebrity has much in common with the thousands of people who rely on free community meals to make ends meet. But in Mill’s story, I see parallels of things guests have frequently shared with me as a social worker at Broad Street Ministry. Of the 7,200 individuals who used our services last year, more than 60 percent share some history of engagement with the criminal justice system. Like Mill, whose court-ordered community service here has been made a matter of public record, many of them struggle with court supervision after even minor convictions.
Many have also experienced intergenerational poverty in their families and hail from communities especially impacted by law enforcement. And what their stories often demonstrate is that juggling those factors with probation, parole, electronic monitoring, curfews, and burdensome reporting requirements is to walk a razor’s edge.
Roughly 3 percent of the city’s citizens are on probation at any given time, and the number of those on parole continues to rise. African American men are impacted at substantially higher rates than their white counterparts.
Last year, a third of the individuals locked up on State Road had not committed a new crime, but rather failed one of the daily pop quizzes supervision entails. These quizzes include hard questions: Should I visit my family or make curfew? Should I go to the hospital or keep my probation appointment? Did I remember to report my change of address? Can I join my new coworkers at a bar after our shift? Answering any number of these questions “wrong” in the eyes of your probation officer could mean an express ticket back to jail. If this were high school —where the stakes were much lower — any teacher would’ve started grading on a curve or changed their rubric.
The city has pledged, with the help of a $3.5 million MacArthur grant, to reduce its prison population by 34 percent over three years, and indeed the number of incarcerated individuals has laudably declined. Meanwhile, despite the empathetic dedication of many supervision officers, the rate of probation failures remain troublingly high and a major conduit back behind the walls. Our decarceration initiatives, however innovative, are ephemeral if they ignore this reality and continue to trade prison bars for invisible shackles that leave individuals hobbled at the precise moment they are expected to rebuild meaningful lives.
Haunted by the ghosts of old convictions, too many individuals find this minefield impossible to navigate and wind up back before a judge, their lives interrupted and spinning further out of control.
The supposed benevolence of supervision (explain that to someone as you police their every move) quickly evaporates when its terms are irreconcilable with the reality of people’s lives. And no one will argue that the reality of life for those with a criminal record involves stigmas impacting access to housing, employment and more.
Many of the individuals I am privileged to meet through working at Broad Street Ministry can tell you our current approach to court supervision is costly in terms of funding, energy, and resources and rather frugal on hope. If there is money to house someone in prison for four years on a technical violation, they ask, where is the investment in social services, employment assistance, education, addiction support, person-focused mental health treatment, diversionary programs and restorative justice approaches that seek healing and reconciliation between victims and survivors?
It is a tragic policy. Despite his wealth, fame, talent and legal support, it sent Meek Mill back to prison after 10 years. Now imagine the quick work it could make of you or I trying to juggle the terms of probation with the demands of our jobs, families, our past-due bills, our health concerns, and personal lives.
We at Broad Street Ministry believe in second chances. How can we believe otherwise, when the fruits of second, third and fourth chances are reflected each day in the lives of our guests, our volunteers, and our staff? It is important for Philadelphia to now ask, as we seek policies that will keep our communities safe, intact and thriving: What kind of “second chance” is court supervision when it undermines people more than it lifts them up?
Michael McKee is a concierge at Broad Street Ministry whose team provides case-management-type services without barriers to more than 600 individuals each year.