What Does Meek Mill’s Sentence Say About Our Criminal (In)justice System?
Innocent 'til guilty, guilty always the verdict
In March of 2016, Brock Turner was convicted of three felony charges after he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster outside of a frat party. He was sentenced to six months. As an explanation for the lenient sentence, presiding judge Aaron Persky said “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on [Turner]. I think he will not be a danger to others.” With time off for good behavior, Turner, who is white, and was a Stanford University freshman at the time of the assault, was released after serving all of 92 days—roughly half his sentence.
Weigh that against this week’s news of rapper Meek Mill getting two to four years for a technical probation violation this week, stemming from 2008 drug and gun charges dating back to when the 30-year-old MC was 19.
His sentence is eight times the length of Turner’s.
Both sentences fall under the so-called virtue of judicial subjectivity. And both are considered “justice” in America.
So what jumps out at you? Race and privilege. Historical disparities in arresting, prosecuting and sentencing. The systemic indifference to and blatant disregard for squandering the potential of young people of color. These minds, these bodies are considered utterly expendable—criminalized, violated, murdered—and it’s business as usual.
What exact public interest is better served with Meek Mill being behind bars? Or anyone facing similar probation violations?
It can be argued that Meek has achieved comparable Ivy-League status, albeit in the rap game. The achievements—in concert with his whiteness—that seemed to buy Turner a get-out-of-jail-free card. Yet the “severe impact” of Meek going back to prison—on his career, his potential, the family that he provides for and the members of the community he employs—is not considered. His humanity, like that of countless people of color who receive “severe and heavy handed” sentencing every day in America—but whose names we just don’t know—is rendered inadmissible.
“I’ve been trying to help you since 2009,” Common Pleas Judge Genece E. Brinkley said in a Philadelphia court on Monday, citing Mill’s previous failure to comply with a court order restricting his travel and two other unrelated arrests earlier this year. (Charges were dropped in both.) “You basically thumbed your nose at me.”
Judge Brinkley had utilized more community-based approaches in sentencing i.e. the extending of Mill’s probation period to stretch more than a decade, rehab, sending him to etiquette classes (at a reported cost of $10,000), and community service.
“I’m human. I’m not perfect,” Mill told the 61-year-old judge in his 40-minute address to the court before sentencing. “I’m asking for mercy. You gave me the ladder to do what I have to do to prevail in my struggle. I made it this far. I can’t really go back and start over.”
Ignoring the opinions of both the city prosecutor and Mill’s probation officer, Judge Brinkley, who will be on the bench until 2023, immediately remanded the Philadelphia-born rapper to serve a minimum of two years in state prison.
Mill’s lawyers have said that they will appeal the decision. As of Tuesday, The New York Times was also reporting, that one of his lawyers, Joe Tacopina, is asserting that Judge Brinkley had “behaved inappropriately over the course of the case, saying, for example, that the judge had requested that the rapper include her name in a song and had given him unsolicited advice on who should manage him.”
Seeking a better understanding of what this case says about the larger workings of our criminal (in)justice system, MASS APPEAL reached out to Ismael Nazario of the Fortune Society. An advocate, TEDtalk alum and survivor of solitary confinement, he offered clear-eyed insight.
What were some of your immediate thoughts when you hear about a severe sentencing like Meek Mill’s or other celebrities?
I have a few opinions on it. The main one is that they are being used as an example. The system is just trying to use them since they are a celebrity, to use their fame. They made a mistake, in the case of Meek Mill, he has this probation hanging over their head and it’s like well, we gave you an opportunity by being on probation, y’all are making a lot of money, doing all these things – and it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, the system is like we gave you a chance and you have the influence to show people that you can come out of a situation, and not necessarily put yourself back in a predicament where you’re going to land yourself in more trouble. That’s the one end, right? We are going to make an example out of you, so you are going to hold those two to four years. But, the other end of the whole setting of an example thing, is that the system is just going to slay you because they don’t care about your influence. You are just another minority coming through the system and we are going to treat you as such. And fame has no weight in this courtroom.
In truth, severe, disproportionate sentencing happens every day across this country.
I have mixed feeling about that. I would never say that we should ever be accepting of heavy sentencing for folks. But, where my sorta mixed feelings come up goes back to what I initially said about having an influence to impact others—and when you are not taking advantage of it. You are in a situation where you have an opportunity in front of you to do something different and set an example for others that are your following, which, for Meek, can be millions of people. Yet, you still want to be doing stupid things. My mixed feelings come in because we all have to learn a lesson some way, somehow. And some people won’t ever get it until it’s too late. So, say there’s a concrete wall. A person will sit up here and tell you, “I bet I could bang my head on that wall and break that concrete.” The reality of it is you’re never going to crack that concrete with your head. But they are still going to do it, over and over, believing that, eventually, they gonna crack this concrete—head busted up, bleeding, unconscious, whatever comes with the territory. Until they are tired of splitting their head open and actually realize, I’m never, ever gon’ crack this wall open.
So, yes maybe an example needs to be set, but not so cruelly. There are but so many chances people are allowed to get. With anything you do in life, particularly if they are negative things, and you have involvement in any type of system, your first couple of times of getting into trouble might be a slap on the wrist, a reprimand here and there. But, then it’s like, dude, we gave you all these chances, now we are going to rock you. So I have sort of mixed feelings on it. But, like you said, this happens every day to people and we don’t know anything about them. For those folks, I guess people can look at it on a case-by-case scenario. And I feel like you can do that a little, but we need to try to focus in on the system, in and of itself, and why it seems to be set on giving people a lot of time to subtract from their opportunities and life. Period.
But, if you’re someone like Brock Turner… the judge basically said that his future was too bright
And they don’t want jail to ruin him.
So what’s that??
I mean we know it’s racial disparity. They look at it like he’s this white kid at Stanford, a swim star—all of that. It’s unfortunate to say, but he’s looked upon as someone who has potential to be greater in life because he’s at an Ivy League school. Of course, I hate to use this but: complexion for protection. It goes hand in hand.
How far does a young man of color have to go to just be free? Meek Mill was on probation for more than a decade. He did his crime in 2008. He served his time. And his community supervision was extended. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but…
From my understating, if you are living righteously and you are doing what you need to do, the period of ten years is not a realistic number. Because good behavior starts coming in to play, and they start taking time off. Like if you’re doing what you need to do, they are going to stop bothering you. But, if you want to be a knucklehead and continue to still live that lifestyle that really ain’t you now, it’s like you digging the ditch yourself.
In that situation, I don’t think you have to overextend yourself to be “free” And really there’s no such thing as free. We are all emancipated. As long as you’re living righteously, and you’re not on these people’s tongues when they having supervisions and talking about their caseload, and when your file comes up for review, they’re like, “Well so and so is a rapper, he’s been working. No arrests. No law involvement. He’s coming up clean. He’s staying out of our hair, so we’re gonna get out of his.”
But, if you want to keep displaying the same patterns of behavior and think it’s not realistic that you’ll end up back in prison, then you basically playing with your freedom. There’s a flip-side to everything. I don’t think you have to really extend yourself too much to be out of harm’s way. But, you do have to extend yourself if you keep making the same knuckle headed mistakes.
Would you consider your own story exceptional in any way? I ask because you have survived the full arc of the story, from being locked up at 16 to the man you are today. And we know, there are a lot of folks who don’t make it.
I wouldn’t say I consider my story exceptional because I actually served time for something I didn’t do. I was in prison for two separate crimes, one of which is what ultimately landed me spending so much time in prison. One I didn’t do. One I did do. The one I didn’t do gave me time. I served my time and then served three of five years on parole only for my criminal conviction to be over turned. So, the time spent in prison was basically a waste of time. Something I alway say is: anything lost can be found again, expect time wasted. So I don’t consider it an exception. It is always up to the individual. If you don’t have any mental health issues that might deviate you from having a one-track mind, after a certain age in adulthood, we can rationalize our decisions. So if you want to be out doing things you’ve previously done, that’s entirely up to you. But, there are hundreds of thousands of people whose stories are exceptional. Who came out and decided to do a complete 180 from prior to when they went in.
What advice, if any, would you offer Meek Mill for the next two to four years?
The first thing I’d say, is hold your head like you got a bloody nose. [Laughs] But also just take that time to reflect, which more than likely is going to happen. When you have nothing but time, at times, your mind becomes your own worst enemy. Don’t let it bring you down. Use it as a motivator. Change the pattern of behavior while you are still under these people’s mercy. Because if you still displaying the same behavior as prior to incarceration, the end result will be the same, yet again. We gotta break that cycle. You also gotta think about all the kids and adults that see this and follow you. And maybe they start to think, my nigga, Meek did it in jail, so maybe I can do it in jail. And that’s not it. For him, that’s the bottom line thing. Use the time to reflect. Keep your head up. Try to educate yourself. There are way too many things going on right under our noses in our communities that once we at a certain point in life, we just don’t care about anymore, because we think that it doesn’t really affect us. But, it does. It does—especially when you have a following. Think about those people whose lives you are influencing. Really think about them. We’ve got to do better.
Last night, the progressive movement for criminal justice reform won big, with the election of Larry Krasner as District Attorney of Philadelphia. His mandate for true reform, calling for an end to mass incarceration and eradicating cash bail may help bring about a new, more just era in the City of Brotherly Love. #FreeMeekMill