A little over three years ago, billionaire entrepreneur and Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin sat in a Philadelphia courtroom in support of his friend, the rapper Meek Mill, and came face to face with the injustice that is our legal system’s probation and parole system.
When Mill was sentenced to 2 to 4 years for some stunningly technical violations, (seriously? Popping a wheelie on a dirt bike?) Rubin became a changed man. He’d been charitable, but never really socially conscious. That changed that day. “It was a complete wakeup call,” he told me then. “There really are two Americas, and two systems of justice.”
Rubin being Rubin, he didn’t just lend his name and his fortune to some existing cause. No, this is a guy who made his first $1 million at all of 16 years old and who bought a Porsche before he had a license to drive. He thinks big. He raised $50 million, activated an all-star list of other masters of the universe, including his friend Jay-Z, and founded the REFORM Alliance with the mission of eradicating our broken probation and parole system.
MORE ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM IN PHILLY
There are 2.2 million Americans in prison or jail, and another 4.5 million trapped in the parole or probation vortex. Late for a meeting with your probation officer? Out past your 8pm curfew? In the same room with someone drinking alcohol? Back to prison you go. Get this: Every four minutes, someone is reincarcerated not for committing a new crime, but for one of these technical violations. Nearly a quarter of all state prison admissions each year are results of supervision violations, costing taxpayers close to $3 billion annually.
According to Columbia University’s Justice Lab, Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest number of people in the parole or probation system—roughly three times the size of the incarcerated population. In a 2017 Kennedy School of Government report entitled “Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes,” the authors argue that there is a direct link between the probation and parole system, on the one hand, and mass-incarceration, on the other. Probation, they say, has not served as an alternative to incarceration so much as a driver of it.
Recently, REFORM Alliance and its new CEO, Robert Rooks, announced its Give Life Back campaign to disrupt the failed system. They dropped Technically Illegal, a 90-second film that quickly went viral and that movingly illustrates the depth of the problem:
Next comes federal legislation that attacks the problem of all the runaway technical violations that ensnare millions in a Kafkaesque system.
I caught up this week with Rooks, who succeeded Van Jones as CEO. (Jones has been elevated to REFORM’s Board). Rooks is a dynamic social justice warrior, having cut his teeth as a community organizer. He was a co-founder of the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), the driving force behind new state laws and policies throughout the country that have reduced incarceration, expunged criminal records, and extended voting rights to returning citizens, as, most famously, in Florida.
His appointment is a sign that REFORM has moved from using the stories of Rubin and Mill to create awareness, and into the realm of getting laws passed that can make lasting impact in real people’s lives. We began by talking about Rubin’s transformation.
Larry Platt: Michael’s a friend of mine, and I’ve got to say, he was transformed when he got such a firsthand look at the injustice of our system. This is a guy who had to ask his daughter what ‘woke’ meant.
Robert Rooks: Michael’s transformation is what we hope to initiate across the country. There are so many people who just go about their lives every day and don’t know about the criminal justice system. Michael’s transformation started in the courtroom that day, and it blew him away and it changed him.
All we’re trying to do is educate all the Michaels out there across the country, let them know that this problem exists. That lives, families and communities are torn apart and rolled up into this system of instability. We’re trying to educate as many people as we can and engage them to make change.
LP: The video you guys dropped really shows how inane some of these regulations are. Was that the purpose?
RR: 100 percent. If you’re not in the system, you take these activities for granted. Like, having to visit your probation officer twice a week. Well, if you work, and you’re trying to provide for your family, it can sometimes take an hour by public transportation to get to your probation officer. Who can take two hours out of a workday and keep their job?
Or making an 8 pm curfew. It’s like we show in the film, going to get Tylenol for your kid who has a fever. Well, if it happens after curfew, what are you going to do? You solve one problem by going to CVS, but now you’ve opened another problem—you can get sent back to jail.
These stipulations are random, arbitrary and have no science to them whatsoever. They’re just things that courts and probation officers have thought up based on what they thought about certain people.
Reform or safety is a false choice. What’s happened is that the system has created a bureaucracy that keeps all this in place. Prisons, probation personnel, pensions—we’ve created a whole machine that, for it to function, all these people are caught up in it.
LP: Tell me about the genesis of the campaign and of the film.
RR: The video and Give Life Back campaign is the first major public activation in our two-year history. Meek got that sentence for basically popping wheelies on a dirt bike, and we spent 18 months trying to figure out how to tell stories so people know that that kind of thing is happening to millions of people caught up in this system right now. We brought in the ad agency Droga5, to do the creative, which they did pro bono. In the first week, the film went viral with 500,000 views, with Meek, Kim Kardashian and Snoop Dogg blowing it up on social media.
LP: But you’re not stopping at just educating now, right?
RR: That’s right. The next step of the campaign is dropping federal legislation that addresses the technical violations that are in the system. That involves explaining to elected officials that this exists and suggesting solutions. We’re in the final stages of drafting the model legislation and narrowing down who the co-sponsors are going to be.
We’re planning a summer of activism around this issue—urging people to call their legislators and support this type of legislation in their states.
LP: I assume that the FIRST STEP Act that passed under President Trump didn’t address the issue of technical parole and probation violations?
RR: That’s right. In fact, some of the people released because of the FIRST STEP Act or pardoned by President Trump have since run into technical violations troubles. Judith Negron went to the White House for the ceremony when she was pardoned, but back in Florida a probation officer saw her on TV associating with felons and threatened to revoke her. That probation officer didn’t really have a choice. I can’t really talk yet about the specifics of our legislation, but it will increase the amount of discretion those making these decisions will get to use, as well as limit the types of things that are considered violations.
LP: Tell me a bit about how you came to this line of work. It seems like you’re not only mission-driven, but that this is also personal to you.
RR: Oh my God, yes. This is the only thing I’ve ever done in my adult life. I knocked on my first door to organize for reforming the criminal justice system when I was 23.
I grew up in Dallas in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I saw a vibrant, working class community get engulfed by crack cocaine. At my best friend’s funeral, I remember looking at him in that casket and thinking “I’ve gotta make sure the next generation doesn’t experience what we’ve been experiencing.”
That’s the commitment I’ve been holding onto. And now I have additional commitments, as the father of three Black sons. I worry every day about them going to the park. You shouldn’t have to have that concern, but I do. You worry if someone who’s just having a bad day is going to take them away. So now I’ve got three more reasons to stay in this fight.
LP: You mention the ‘80s and ‘90s. I remember how the scourge of crack decimated cities. A lot of people talk today about the crime bill back then, but I remember that it was Black mayors like Baltimore’s Kurt Schmoke crying out for this intervention. Charlie Rangel said that not getting shot was the new civil right. It’s complicated, because parts of the approach then did seem to work and crime did drop a lot, right?
RR: This is the right conversation to be having, for sure, right now. I was in the middle of all that—I went to grad school, became a community organizer. Our response was all about how to make the neighborhood safer so our kids can play outside. That was only natural. We weren’t thinking, does this support mass incarceration or the war on drugs? We just wanted it safe enough to play in the playground.
Many victims of crime are not interested in locking up and throwing away the key for everyone who has committed crime. Because these are our kids, too.
The challenge was that the tools available to us were limited. So they said, Let’s fund the police, we said, Okay, if that’s all you got, we’ll take it. It’s unfair to hold up politicians back then—like our president now—who just wanted to make it so kids could play outside again and say they were responsible for this system.
LP: No one knew then that it was a systemic issue.
RR: Right, none of us knew. Now we know it was a failed strategy and that we need to make real structural changes.
LP: We’re having a DA’s race here right now that has devolved into a very simplistic reform versus safety debate. There’s a smart discussion to be had about what smart reform might look like, but we keep getting talking points.
RR: Reform or safety is a false choice. What’s happened is that the system has created a bureaucracy that keeps all this in place. Prisons, probation personnel, pensions—we’ve created a whole machine that, for it to function, all these people are caught up in it.
Instead of just putting a crazy amount of cops on the streets, like New York is doing, we need to rethink what safety looks like. That’s what Newark is doing under Mayor Ras Baraka, where violence interrupters from the community work with the police—I think Newark police officers didn’t fire their guns once last year. That’s amazing.
LP: Funny you bring that up, we just posted a terrific piece about how Newark and Camden smartly reformed their policing and prosecution policies and have posted promising results. Those two cities provide a compelling alternative. So does the fact that, amazingly, the last bipartisan issue in Congress might just be criminal justice reform.
RR: There was some very intentional work to make that a reality. It goes back to Chuck Colson—
LP: Chuck Colson who went to jail for Watergate?
RR: Right, Watergate. He established an organization among Republicans called Right On Crime in 2008 or 2009 and they started lobbying for reforms at the state level. Republicans were a big part of the FIRST STEP Act. Just last week, I was in Georgia with Governor Brian Kemp to pass bipartisan legislation that will take 50,000 people off the probation rolls.
LP: Why is it that, in these polarized times, criminal justice reform is the issue that has appeal across party lines?
RR: I think it comes down to shared values. Every American wants to feel safe in their community, regardless of what political party you affiliate with. The current system frankly does not increase or promote safety, and folks on both sides of the aisle are realizing that.
LP: Finally, here in Philly, one of the knocks on incumbent DA Larry Krasner is that he doesn’t care about victims. But at ASJ, you did something really interesting. You put together the largest database of crime victims in the nation so you could gauge what they’d like to see in a criminal justice system. ASJ’s Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice has become the nation’s largest victims’ group, with more than 42,000 members. What have you learned from this group?
RR: The idea was, let’s take politics out of it and enter into a conversation. Put your DA race aside and let’s talk to crime victims about what they want. That’s what we did, and when we asked if the system was working for them, we found three things: They told us we’re not solving the root causes of crime in their communities; we’re not stopping crime from happening to me and my community, they said; and, finally, that all the investments into this issue were going into a dark hole and not into local programming.
I think it’s a big mistake to think that crime does not exist. It does exist. The question is what do we do about that crime? Many victims of crime are not interested in locking up and throwing away the key for everyone who has committed crime. Because these are our kids, too. One mother said to us about her son, and it’s so true, she said, I asked for help when he was 12 and no one was there for us. But at 17, there was a prison cell waiting for him.
LP: Wow. That really sums up the whole issue. Thanks for talking to me about all this, and for your public service.