Since Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill was sent to prison earlier this month for probation violations, his fans have mobilized. Supportive billboards have gone up, a tour bus featuring an illuminated Stand With Meek Mill sign has driven around Philadelphia City Hall, and celebrity supporters from Jay-Z to Colin Kaepernick have publicly protested Mill’s two- to four-year prison sentence.
But how does his case provide a window into how thousands of other Philadelphians deal with probation every day?
WHYY’s Bobby Allyn sat down with Philadelphia’s top public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, to explore this question.
On Mill’s case as an opportunity for criminal justice reformers to get their message out
“What we see in the Meek Mill case is someone who can go to jail for a lengthy term for not committing a new crime, but doing things that most would deem mistakes — mistakes that he shouldn’t do, but something that’s not worthy of a state sentence in prison … He’s a good example because his case amplifies this problem. So we can talk about it around what happened here and really break it down and say this is not something that’s unusual. But in the ways he’s not is that he is treated a lot different than most people we represent. I don’t see him as the poster child, but an opportunity to really discuss this problem in a larger sense. If we want mass-incarceration to end, we have to understand what it looks like, and his case does exemplify that.”
On the difficulty of breaking the cycle of long probation sentences
“If people are on probation for ten years, they’re going to make a mistake. Five or ten years of probation is not designed to help people progress. Once the court supervision ends, people are on their own. So we have to give them a little freedom and flexibility. Even though they’re under the court’s watchful eye, we should be looking out as to whether they’re in the same position, demonstrating the same anti-social behavior, and committing new crimes – not, ‘Are they perfect?’ There’s no real boundaries in terms of how they can sentence you, other than the statutory max of the original charge. And so, if he was charged with selling drugs, the statutory max is ten years. The judge can sentence him for 11 years, but she can continue to give him five years, five years, and five years. We have people who are on probation for decades, and they can’t seem to get out from underneath it.”
On how probation violation hearings focus more on technical rules being broken and less on how the probationer has made improvements
“That’s something we all own in the criminal justice system. The defenders, the DAs, the judges. When people are in violation, there’s not a lot of information about all the progress they made. Unfortunately, when they are in violation, we get that information really rapidly and we have to piece together what someone has done during the entire time they were on probation. What are their pitfalls? And what are some of the real-life circumstances that would prohibit them from doing everything they need to do. And we don’t always get that full picture. We’re trying to do a better job at that by using the community in an initiative called Participatory Defense, so when people are in violation, we’d like to have someone from the community to talk a little more about who they are and what they’ve done and what opportunities they may have.”
On the latitude trial judges have to send a defendant who is on probation to jail
“For the original sentence, there are guidelines that will help guide a judge. But once they’re on probation, it’s totally discretionary. There are no guidelines for probation, and that’s something we need to work towards, looking at guidelines and looking at what offense would hold what kind of weight, or you’re at the whim of every judge who has a different view of a person … It can cut both ways. It can cut the way a judge believes a person has had enough and some people may not like a short sentence a judge has given a person on probation. But it also gives way to judicial abuse, where a judge could have some personal biases that are baked in there.”
On whether Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley is unfit to stay on Meek Mill’s case, after the rapper’s lawyers alleged that she asked that Mill give her a shout-out in a song and after she visited him as he volunteered at a community service site, then scolded him for folding clothes, instead of giving out food to the homeless, as she had ordered
“If the things are true, that would seem kind of odd. I don’t know what the discussion was in the court, maybe there were more jovial conversations, or regular conversing with him. But it’s something that, if it’s true, she’s going have to answer to.”