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The underlying issues of Meek Mill’s situation are front and center in the evolving conversation around criminal justice reform in Philadelphia and around the country. Want to get involved?

Here are some places to start:

The Reentry Coalition is a group of nearly 50 partner organizations in Philadelphia working to help recently incarcerated transition home—to keep them from returning to jail.

The MacArthur Foundation has spent million of dollars around the country—including $3.5 million here—to reduce over-incarceration, an issue particularly prevalent here in Philly. Read about its work to learn more on the issues.

Learn about the city’s work to end cash bail. District Attorney Larry Krasner’s plan to reform the justice system. And follow the work of the Mayor’s Office to reform criminal justice here.

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Meek Mill at the Sixers game

The Meek Mill Conundrum

The rapper isn’t exactly Nelson Mandela. But can his story lead to reform? And can he actually make our city safer?

The rapper isn’t exactly Nelson Mandela. But can his story lead to reform? And can he actually make our city safer?

Something about the dramatic way the Meek Mill story went down in the last week has unleashed a whole lotta hand-wringing. Thanks to the impressive activism of Sixers’ co-owner Michael Rubin, Mill’s two to four year incarceration for parole violations of his 2007 drug and firearms conviction had become a cause celebre.

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When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last week that Mill be released on bail, Rubin whisked the rapper away on a helicopter en route to the Sixers’ playoff game; Sixers’ CEO Scott O’Neil proclaimed Mill “a member of the family” and, come game time, Mill received a hero’s welcome, ringing the Liberty Bell replica to kick off the game, and sitting courtside with Rubin and Gov. Tom Wolf, in a photo op that no doubt may be used against Wolf come general election time.

Judging from all the hoopla and love showered upon Mill, you would have thought we were celebrating the release of a political prisoner. A cacophony of voices spoke up to point out that Mill is no Nelson Mandela. Attorney Bryan Lentz, a former prosecutor, reacted by using Mill’s own words against him, quoting from his prior courtroom testimony: “I was a drug dealer, carried a gun every day, doing non-positive things,” Mill admitted in open court. Inquirer and Daily News columnist Christine Flowers was so offended by Mill’s hero’s welcome, she proclaimed the Sixers were now “dead to me.” That prompted Eagle and Citizen columnist Malcolm Jenkins to respond via Twitter: “This is the dumbest shit I’ve ever read. If you don’t understand why Meek Mill and his story is more important now than ever then you have CHOSEN to close your eyes to problems in our society. You should’ve closed them for a few more seconds while he rung the bell.”

But both things can be true, right? Mill could be undeserving of the heroic hype and his story could serve as a window into the inequities of the criminal justice system, no? Here are a few observations to make just such a nuanced case.

The team warms up before games to Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” It’s a crude reportage of antisocial acts that would lead the team to unceremoniously cut one of its players if he did the things, or spoke the way, that Mill glorifies in rhyme. Forget Mandela; Kendrick Lamar Mill is not.

What were the Sixers thinking? As an organization, the Sixers have struggled with finding the right social consciousness tone in the era of its current private equity ownership. First, there’s the fact that this ownership group built a lavish training facility in Camden, which is cool. But, by moving all the team’s jobs there, they removed about $2 million in wage and business taxes from the Philadelphia economy. Not exactly a socially responsible act.

Then came the time the team refused to let a singer belt out the national anthem because she was wearing a T-shirt that read We Matter. After an uproar, they apologized and invited her back. But it makes you wonder: Has the team’s full-throated embrace of Mill been an over-correction?

Listen to Larry Platt on WURD’s Reality Check with Charles D. Ellison:

The team warms up before games to Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” which the Inquirer music writer Dan DeLuca described yesterday as “an anthem of indefatigable determination.” That’s one way to look it. Another way: Like much of Mill’s work, it’s a crude reportage of antisocial acts that would lead the team to unceremoniously cut one of its players if he did the things, or spoke the way, that Mill glorifies in rhyme. Forget Mandela; Kendrick Lamar Mill is not. To wit:

They love me when I was stuck and hated when I was departed/
I go and get it regardless, draw it like I’m an artist/
No crawling, went straight to walkin’ with foreign cars in my garage/
Got foreign bitches menaging, fuckin’, suckin’, and swallowin’/
Anything for a dollar, they tell me get ‘em, I got ‘em…
I’m that real nigga what up, real nigga what up/
If you ain’t about that murder game then pussy nigga shut up/
If you diss me in yo’ raps, I’ll get your pussy ass stuck up/
When you touchdown in my hood, no that tour life ain’t good…

What about the actual case against Mill? It remains to be seen whether his original conviction in 2007 will be overturned, now that the name of Mill’s arresting officer, Reginald Graham, has turned up on the District Attorney’s “Do Not Call” list. Graham was the only police witness to testify against Mill, and his then-partner has now accused him of lying on the stand.

But it’s not too early to conclude that Judge Genece Brinkley erred in sentencing the rapper to two to four years in prison last year for violating his probation—when the prosecution wasn’t even seeking jail time. This is the part that Mill’s critics don’t get: Brinkley hasn’t practiced the dispassionate application of justice when it comes to Mill for years. In fact, she’s been downright weird about the case. She showed up at Broad Street Ministries, where Mill was supposed to be feeding the homeless, and excoriated him for folding T-shirts instead. She urged him to take “etiquette classes.”

Let’s be clear: Brinkley confuses justice with control. When she says to Mill, after her bizarre visit to Broad Street Ministries, “It was only when you realized that I came there to check on you that you decided to serve meals,” that’s all about her ego. Or how about this: “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court,” she told Mill. When she sentenced him to state prison, she said: “Then I’ll be done with you.”

Sounds more like a jilted lover than an attempt to rid civil society of a menace, doesn’t it? Seems pretty personal to me. Which is really why the Meek Mill story matters: How many other young African-American men are confronted by just such a justice system, men who don’t have sports team owners available to them to turn their cases into spectacle?

Mill’s case can lead to real reform. According to a recent report from the Columbia University Justice Lab, Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest number of people under the parole or probation system—roughly three times the size of the incarcerated population. How many thousands of them are getting resentenced to prison time like Mill, not out of a concern for public safety, but because some judge felt dissed (not unlike one of the characters in, uh, a Meek Mill rap)?

In a report released in August by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the answer would seem to be plenty. In 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.

How can Meek Mill and the Sixers make a real difference? When I expressed my concerns about Mill as a flawed spokesman for criminal justice reform to Sharmain Matlock-Turner, the ever-thoughtful president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, she cautioned me: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” she said. “Whatever his flaws, if this young man wants to make a positive difference, we should embrace that.”

In the end, of course, she’s right. In tweeting his gratitude to the Philly DA’s office—without the recommendation from Larry Krasner that he be set free, Mill would still be behind bars—he wrote: “I understand that many people of color across the country don’t have that luxury and I plan to use my platform to shine a light on those issues.” He told Lester Holt of NBC News “Let’s retire #FreeMeekMill and make it #JusticeReform.” Rubin—a surprisingly woke billionaire—told the Inquirer’s DeLuca that Mill now “wants to change the world.”

Maybe it’s not so far-fetched to fantasize that Mill’s most locally patriotic act is still to come: A rap that convinces young black men that cooperating with the police in murder investigations can actually be cool, if it leads to saving lives. Let the Sixers enter the arena to that tune.

So rather than paying lip service to reform, here’s hoping Mill and the Sixers look at what other states and municipalities have done and try to enact change here. They could start in Georgia, which passed bipartisan probation reform last year, shortening sentences and reducing caseloads. In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill that minimizes punishments for “technical violations” of probation—you know, like folding T-shirts for the homeless when you’re supposed to be feeding them. Bipartisan coalitions have led other states to shorten probation terms and give courts the power to end them altogether.

But maybe they shouldn’t stop there. If you listen to Mill’s raps, they’re filled with tales of senseless murder. Well, our city had 312 of them last year. And we have an abysmal clearance rate of below 40 percent. That means that roughly 6 of every 10 murders go unsolved. You can get away with murder in Philadelphia, and the police say a major contributing factor is the no snitching culture that pervades on our streets.

There is no one among us better equipped to take that on than Meek Mill. In a fascinating interview with Rolling Stone the morning after his release, Mill opened up about life on the streets and, for all he’s been through, seemed surprisingly understanding when it comes to the police. “If the police are already failing you and your community, and your community is failing you, and your own people are failing you, you will kick into survival mode,” he said. “I think that issue should be addressed. I can’t blame it just on police, because it’s a self-hatred issue, too, where we are killing one another, African Americans, and we’re also living in unsafe neighborhoods where you can’t walk to the Chinese store without thinking you’re gonna get killed.”

Maybe it’s not so far-fetched to fantasize that Mill’s most locally patriotic act is still to come: A rap that convinces young black men that cooperating with the police in murder investigations can actually be cool, if it leads to saving lives. Let the Sixers enter the arena to that tune.

Header Photo: Amil Barnes for Vimeo

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