Van Jones and Shaka Senghor: The only person who believes Meek Mill should be in prison is Judge Genece E. Brinkley
This case is an opportunity for Pennsylvania to right the wrongs of its prison system, they write
Editor’s Note: Van Jones is a CNN political commentator. He is the co-founder of #cut50, where Shaka Senghor also serves as director of strategy and innovation. #cut50 is a national, bipartisan criminal justice organization fighting to safely and smartly reduce the prison population while keeping communities safe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
Imagine being a father, excited to surprise your son with the ultimate gift: a weekend at Disneyland. But before you can buy tickets, pack your bags, or even begin to imagine the ear-to-ear grin on his face when you tell him, you – a grown man – have to ask permission from your probation officer. That’s exactly the type of everyday experience that Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, whose full name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, has struggled with for the last 10 years after coming home from prison.
Despite the stringent probation restrictions Mill faces daily, he has built an international name for himself as a performer and has become a youth mentor to hundreds of kids through organizations like Universal Companies and the NBA’s 76ers, hoping to encourage young people to stay out of trouble. Sadly, in spite of all his hard work and community leadership, last Monday, Mill was sentenced to prison for 2-4 years for technical violations of his probation from a 2008 gun and drug case, for which he spent eight months in prison and was given five years of probation. His probation continued to be extended because of violations.
In sending Mill to prison last week, the Philadelphia Common Pleas judge who has overseen his case since 2009, Genece E. Brinkley, cited three violations. That she seized on them appears irrational.
First, she said Mill violated his probation by testing positive for opiates. While this is true, this in no way justifies a 2-4 year prison sentence. Mill tested positive in January, admitted he had a problem, and went to rehab. Brinkley was particularly incensed because she believed she was not notified that Mill received treatment in Atlanta. According to the judge, she had approved travel only to California and not Atlanta.
But emails show that while the company that organized the rehabilitation services was based in California, the services were actually provided in Atlanta and the judge was notified of that fact via email! The assistant district attorney, who was also copied on that email, even confirmed that she received it.
Second, Brinkley found Mill to be in technical violation of his probation when he was charged with offenses resulting from a March fight at the St. Louis International Airport. According to Mill’s account, recorded in court transcripts, two people were beating up his 18-year-old friend. That 18-year-old weighed 140 pounds, Mill wrote, and had a bullet lodged in his head from a previous incident. As he was being stomped into the ground, Mill got out of his car to help. All charges against Mill were dismissed in exchange for community service.
Finally, she said that a reckless driving charge in New York should also be considered a technical violation. Mill was in New York shooting a music video in August and popped a wheelie on his dirt bike. That charge was dismissed after he performed community service and agreed to stay out of trouble for six months.
So, seeking treatment for an opioid addiction, breaking up a fight, and entertaining kids on a dirt bike? Mill’s story has nothing to do with public safety, and everything to do with making an example of someone by exploiting the punitive and vengeful aspects of incarceration and probation. Sadly, he is not alone. Mill’s case is simply highlighting the injustice that millions of young men face nationwide at the hands of the justice system, where young, black men are disproportionately represented.
To be clear, Mill hasn’t been convicted of any new crimes in the last 10 years, and neither his probation officer nor the Philadelphia district attorney believe he should be returned to prison.
In fact, the only party to the case who believes he should is Judge Genece E. Brinkley.
This is the second time Brinkley has sent Mill back to prison for a parole violation. The first was in 2014 for performing out of state without permission.
Looking through court transcripts and filings, it is clear this is a case of a judge gone wild. We reached out to Brinkley for comment on the allegations in this article, but have not received a response. In the meantime, on Tuesday, Mill’s lawyers filed a motion for recusal, asking Brinkley to disqualify herself in his case and, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, let a new judge reconsider Mill’s prison sentence.
After reviewing an incomplete list of incidents involving Brinkley, we think you will agree there is no reason she should remain in charge of Mill’s fate:
• According to an article in the New York Post, by Emily Smith, Brinkley has been under FBI investigation for more than a year and undercover FBI agents have been monitoring some of the judicial proceedings regarding Meek’s case. Wrote Smith: “A rep for the FBI Philly field office said, ‘Per [Justice Department] policy, we neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.’”
• According to an interview that Mill’s lawyer gave to TMZ, Brinkley instructed Mill to record a specific duet of a Boyz II Men song and dedicate it to the judge.
• In March 2016, Brinkley showed up at the place where Mill was doing community service. When she arrived, she found out he was sorting clothes instead of serving food to the homeless. Mill’s lawyers told us that even though Mill explained that he had been assigned to sort clothes, the judge was furious, and claimed it was just another way he had failed to follow her orders.
• In February 2016, Brinkley recommended that Mill fire his well-respected management company and replace it with a local manager, who happens to be a friend of hers, according to an interview that Mill’s lawyer did with Billboard.
• Since February 2016, Brinkley has repeatedly refused Mill’s request to access transcripts of his own legal proceedings, in clear violation of his constitutional rights under the US and Pennsylvania Constitutions.
Post incarceration, people face injustices like this often. And it’s particularly evident in Mill’s hometown of Philadelphia. The city still has the highest incarceration rate per capita of America’s 10 largest cities, though it has cut the number of people behind bars by 20% over the last two years. And roughly half those jailed in Philadelphia are stripped of their freedom and locked up not for new crimes, but for minor probation violations, just like Meek Mill’s.
Overall, the state of Pennsylvania has the second highest rate of people on probation or parole in the United States, with more than 45,000 people on correctional supervision in Philadelphia alone. Nearly one out of every three prison beds in the state is filled by somebody who violated the terms of their probation or parole. It costs $45,000 a year to house an inmate in a Philadelphia prison. To operate 25 prisons per year, it costs the state $2 billion.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nationally 1 in 53 adults were on some form of “post-prison surveillance” by the end of 2015. That’s roughly 4.65 million adults who can be potentially locked up for minor or technical violations.
While these individuals are not behind bars, they’re not totally free either. The smallest mistake could lead to re-incarceration and the day-to-day burden often makes it more difficult to fully acclimate and integrate into society as full, productive citizens. This is a social and economic catastrophe. It also violates America’s values and wastes precious taxpayer resources on returning people to incarceration – too often unjustly – instead of increasing community safety by investing in education, health care, and substance abuse treatment for those in need.
Get our free weekly newsletter
High profile cases like Mill’s can provide an opportunity for Pennsylvania to right its wrongs. The outrage of seeing him unjustly incarcerated should fuel policy changes that prevent men like him from being sent to prison without committing crimes.
Mill’s case is also an opportunity to show how important it is for us to hold judges accountable. Whenever there is sentencing overreach, or, as music mogul Jay-Z described it, “heavy-handed” sentencing, we must push for judicial accountability.
Finally, this is an opportunity for all of us to come together and envision a world where men and women aren’t held hostage to their past. Where misdeeds and mistakes don’t define you for the rest of your life. Where you have a real chance to right your wrongs and create a new path of success without looking over your shoulder like Mill has had to do. To help do this, #cut50 is also leading a campaign called #stillnotfree. The campaign’s focus is on raising awareness of the challenges faced by people coming home from prison.