Probation, Meek Mill, and the racist criminal justice system

Elizabeth Braaten

April 24 marked the long-awaited release of Robert Williams (aka Meek Mill) from prison.

Fans and social justice activists alike celebrated the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to free Williams on bail after the rapper received a two-to-four year prison sentence in November 2017 for violating his probation. The probation period, which was initially supposed to last five years, was extended several times for minor probation violations over the entirety of the past decade, resulting in an emotionally exhausting nightmare for the 30-year-old rapper.

The worst part of Williams’ story is it’s nowhere near uncommon. Williams’ experience is evidence of a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color for minor violations of probation and parole. This ensures decreased employment opportunities and an increased chance that convicts will wind up back in prison.

In the United States today, an estimated 4.5 million people are on probation or on parole. Among the population of the U.S. criminal justice system as a whole, people of color are overrepresented. This inherent racism in our country’s legal system particularly targets black communities. Probation rates for black Americans are a stunning 2.9 percent higher than those of their white counterparts, and, in some states, are five or more times higher. Probation is meant to serve as a substitution for time spent in a correctional facility for a period of supervision by the state, in which the offender is required to meet conditions of good behavior. But probation is often unforgiving of small mistakes. According to a three-month survey conducted by The Marshall Project, at least 61,000 people nationwide are currently behind bars, not for committing a crime but for parole violations such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a parole officer.

This has serious, negative repercussions for people of color caught up in the criminal justice system, as having a criminal record hinders a person’s ability to acquire things such as loans, housing rights and jobs. For people of color who are actively discriminated against even without convictions, this is a devastating prospect for convicts trying to get their lives back on track. Unable to be a full participant in society, many convicts become repeat offenders, ensuring that they are behind bars and trapped within a relentless system for much of their lives. 

Williams’ case is one of the millions of examples of this trend. Although his initial probationary period was only supposed to last five years, his sentence has been extended time and time again because of minor probation violations, such as booking performances outside of Philadelphia without a judge’s approval. The criminal justice system makes certain that offenders are caught up in a mess of fines, fees and drug tests that make it impossible to lead a normal life.

Instead of keeping people out of prison, probation and parole often make certain the exact opposite. To prevent this from happening, time limits should be placed on probation periods. Furthermore, the probation period itself should be more focused on rehabilitation and community service — not on fees and drug tests. 

We’ve celebrated Meek Mill’s freedom. Now it’s time to worry about the other 4.5 million. 

Braaten is an international relations junior from Conroe. She is a senior columnist.