Like the Meek Mill probation drama, the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign has shed bright light on all that is wrong with the American criminal justice system.
For some, the flaws are illustrated by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s unfathomable decision, reported this week, to ghostwrite an op-ed with Russians while out on bail in connection with money-laundering and foreign lobbying charges stemming from the Russian collusion investigation.
For others, the flaws are best seen in Common Pleas Court Judge Genece Brinkley’s decision to deny bail to Philadelphia-based rapper Meek Mill after she sentenced Mill to two to four years in prison for probation violations, citing her belief that Mill represents a danger to himself and others.
For me, both men’s cases tell us that American criminal justice, whether at the state or federal level, treats offenders differently based on race and class.
Let’s start with Mill, whose entry into the criminal justice system was a petty gun and drug charge in 2008. While the arrests that led to his latest imprisonment were for a fight at the St. Louis airport, and popping wheelies on a motorbike in New York, Mill also failed drug tests and ignored travel restrictions. In my view, that means Mill made his bed and must now lie in it.
Unlike Mill, Manafort has not been convicted of a crime. But when I look at the men’s transgressions side by side, I’m thoroughly convinced that Manafort, not Mill, is the dangerous one. It’s Manafort, after all, who worked for dictators around the world before chairing a campaign that allegedly partnered with Russia to deliver Trump the presidency.
Yet Manafort is under house arrest, and not in prison as Mill is. That’s not the worst part. While on house arrest, Manafort was able to use four properties worth $11 million to secure a federal bail agreement that could have freed him from house arrest. Then, while he was awaiting court approval of that agreement, Manafort was arrogant enough to ghostwrite an op-ed with someone connected to Russian intelligence.
I can’t blame Manafort for believing he could get away with something as bizarre as that. In a criminal justice system in which the danger one poses is largely determined by race and class, Manafort is at the top of the food chain and Mill is at the bottom.
If that were not the case, a man with penny-ante probation violations would be free on bail, and a man accused of laundering money he earned through years of working with bloodthirsty foreign despots would be awaiting trial in prison.
But Mill is a black man from a poverty-stricken background whose road to celebrity took him from the streets of North Philly to the heights of hip-hop. Manafort is a white man whose wealth was garnered from his grandfather’s construction company, his father’s political connections, and his own work for dangerous foreign governments and dictators.
Their backgrounds make the two men fundamentally different, and they cause America to view them through two distinct lenses.
Mill is viewed as inherently dangerous, not because of what he’s done, but because of who he is.
It’s the same reason a police officer is seen as credible when he claims he had to shoot because an unarmed, 50-year-old black man was running away from him. It’s the same reason another police officer, surrounded by several colleagues, can claim she feared for her life when an unarmed black man stood next to an SUV with his hands in the air.
And no, it doesn’t matter that the judge who claimed Mill was dangerous is a black woman. We’ve all been conditioned to believe that black men are more dangerous than other people. Society reinforces that message at every turn, while working to convince us that men like Manafort pose no threat to the rest of us.
Until that message is challenged and changed, black men will continue to receive longer sentences than their white counterparts, even when their crimes and backgrounds are similar. Police officers will still be seen as justified in shooting unarmed black men.
Until that message is challenged and changed, men like Meek Mill will continue to get prison for petty probation violations, and men like Manafort will continue to get house arrest while facing charges of international crimes that change the world.