There is a famous legend in the Philadelphia criminal justice system about a defendant with a long record of thefts who was sentenced to prison and responded by cursing the judge. Her attorney, a crusty old veteran of the courtroom, urged her to stop cursing at the judge and informed her that (I am paraphrasing the legend) “of course you are going to prison. You are a criminal, that’s where they send criminals!”
I was reminded of this story the other day when I saw billboards and bus placards urging the release of Meek Mill from prison. Lost in the hysterical effort to portray Mill as a latter-day Nelson Mandela is the fact that Mill also was convicted of a crime.
Mill was on probation after being found guilty of possessing an illegal firearm and an illegal drug offense. (He was originally charged with felony aggravated assault.) You may have heard that illegal guns and drugs are a scourge in the city. The thousands of people who are either killed or maimed each year are almost always killed or maimed with an illegal gun and often drugs are involved.
Many defendants convicted of possessing an illegal gun and drug crimes go directly to state prison. That was not the case for Mill. He received a county sentence and was allowed out on probation and to travel throughout the United States for most of the 10 years since his arrest in 2007. Probation is a pretty basic concept; you can stay out of jail but you have to obey a few basic rules. The most basic rule: Don’t get arrested again! At least not while you are on probation. Mill apparently found this too difficult to observe and was arrested again — twice.
The point here is not that Mill is not capable of redemption. He is. Apparently, just not yet. The real point is that yes, the criminal justice system is in need of dramatic reform, but Mill is not the poster child for that reform.
One area of reform needed is the system of life without parole, which denies many redeemed, productive citizens from returning to society and contributing to their communities. To continue to imprison those who have so completely transformed their lives when they are 60, 70, and 80 years old, at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers, is illogical, wasteful, and contrary to the historical values of our commonwealth.
I have witnessed firsthand the positive impact of ex-offenders as participants in strategies such as the “Focused Deterrence” strategy now used in Philadelphia. During the execution of that strategy, ex-offenders mentor and assist some of the city’s most at-risk youth and have a stunning impact in improving public safety. There are lifers in our state prison system who are ready, willing, and uniquely able to make this same priceless contribution to improving public safety. These strategies need money to fund job training and job opportunities for at-risk youth in communities with almost 50 percent unemployment among young African American males.
Making a martyr of an offender like Mill does not help the cause of criminal justice reform. It hurts it by overshadowing those in the system who can and should benefit from reform. How about a bus placard for them?
Bryan R. Lentz is a lawyer in Philadelphia. firstname.lastname@example.org