The truest revelations about the inadequacy of our legal system are in individual stories. Look no further than Robert Williams, better known as Meek Mill, who was sentenced yesterday to two to four years in prison for probation violations at the height of his career. Though he had a May scuffle at the St. Louis Airport, where charges were dropped, and a reckless driving offense in New York, presiding Judge Genece Brinkley specifically cited violations of a court order restricting his travel and failed drug tests — though prosecutors said he had been clean since January and didn’t recommend jail time.
Meek didn’t shoot anyone, sexually assault anyone, or deal drugs. He hasn’t been caught with a gun since being convicted of a weapons charge almost a decade ago, in 2008. But for myriad reasons, his probation, which was originally only five years, has been sustained for almost a decade, an albatross hanging from him like one of the many pieces of jewelry he’s known to rock. It’s a wonder he’s made it to the plateau he’s achieved as an artist, as he’s been confined to the state of Pennsylvania for months at a time, missed out on who knows how much money, and even a movie with Will Smith.
In 2014, he tweeted:
“Every time I go 2 probation it’s a new thing. The D.A. on my case a racist. I caught that case when I was 18 [and] she’s still bothering me….I go 2 court July 11th. I want every piece of press 2 see the way they try 2 handle my case because I’m famous. I been on probation almost 6 years without going back 2 jail. I’ve been going 2 see probation every 30 days for almost 6 years. They want me 2 live in Philly so I can get killed or catch a dumb case and go 2 jail. They won’t be happy til it happen.”
The Assistant Defense Attorney he was referring to, Noel Desantis, somehow took his venting as a provocation and said, “he’s asking me to send him to jail and that’s what I’m going to ask for.” She previously sent him to etiquette classes after his fans attacked her based on his tweets — as if he could control that. He was sentenced to six months in prison in July of 2014 for violations that included not coordinating his travel schedule with his probation officer and taking a picture with a gun on Instagram.
Last year, Meek was sentenced to 90 days of home confinement and six more years of probation after he was once again ruled to have violated probation. Brinkley gave him the sentence as if it was a reprieve — after he had to basically beg for mercy. Given what he had done to violate the probation, gave a tampered urine sample and failed to tell his probation officer that he had traveled to the American Music Awards, the sentence was excessive.
I don’t have a law degree, but I’m almost 100% sure that instead of incarceration or confinement, a simple fine that offset any money he had made through his secretive trips would’ve made the famously money-chasing MC think twice about ever doing it again. And as for the cold water sample, there’s no denying the stupidity — but as I’ve said before, drug abuse is par for the course growing up with the trauma Meek has. He noted kicking a drug problem just earlier this year. I’m not excusing his errors, but the punishment for them was egregious — specifically the criminalization of a possible drug problem when rehabilitation has continually proven to be a better solution. Meek reportedly sought drug rehab in Atlanta, but the fact he did it without telling the judge still hurt him in his most recent hearing.
While Brinkley told Meek at the time that he wasn’t being forthright about his urine sample, she and her peers should perhaps look in the mirror, because they haven’t been forthright about the conditions of his probation.
The New York Post’s Page Six reported in December of 2015 that his Probation Officer Treas Underwood was “obsessed” with him, excessively visiting him while he did community service, which was framed as abnormal. It’s not enough that she was possibly enamored with having a famous client, but she knew him from their old North Philly neighborhood, and he had an altercation with her cousin back in the day. AllHipHop.com reported that during a March 2013 hearing, their “combative” history was evident by Meek’s pleas to remove her from his case and their constant interrupting of each other.
Though Underwood’s prior relationship with Meek should have been deemed an obvious conflict of interest, Brinkley refused to remove her from the case at the hearing — perhaps because she has her own proximity to Meek, according to the rapper’s lawyer Joe Tacopina.
When Page Six contacted Underwood about Meek Mill, she reportedly “giggled, pretended to be someone else,” then redirected the call. Does having someone this unprofessional in charge of your freedom seem fair, especially when she’s reporting to a judge who his lawyer allegeshis lawyer alleges tried to get Meek to shout her out in a Boyz II Men cover?
It took years for Underwood to be removed — years in which the burgeoning rapper could have already achieved the fate of Gucci Mane, who had his probation terminated early for being a model citizen. You may note that Meek, who has had numerous public scuffles linked to him, may not be as squeaky clean as the new Gucci, but his first violation didn’t come until 2012. That was three years into the probation, with plenty of time to see that he was on the right track as a nationally known artist. Given that Meek and Brinkley’s 2012 flap was over him taking too many shows, not an actual crime, they should have realized they were wasting resources then.
But now, in 2017, he’s being incarcerated again and taken away from his child and family on an absurd sentence given the nature of his violations. The system supposedly designed to rehabilitate has done nothing but hinder the gainfully employed rapper as he tried to make strides to advance his music career. The childish mistakes which led to his violations appear in a different light when considering he might not have been on probation in recent years if he had an impartial probation officer. It’s a prime example of the success — not failing — of our justice system that isn’t broken but functioning exactly how it’s supposed to since it’s post-slavery inception.
Meek’s circumstance isn’t surprising in a commonwealth state where Wilkes-Barre Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan literally sold convictions of over 2,000 youth to a private prison owner during the “kids for cash” scandal. An Urban Institute study found that Black people’s probations are revoked at a higher rate than that of white and Latino probationers. As Jay-Z noted following the news last night, this sentence is “unjust and heavy-handed.”
Meek Mill’s experience with the justice system, like that of many Black and Brown people, is characterized by egregious, unwarranted periods of incarceration issued by judges and officials often infected with an insidious prejudice against people of color, especially hip-hop stars. From Meek being detained in 2012 with no charges, to the late Prodigy being asked to plant drugs on 50 Cent, to the existence of the “hip-hop police” task force, it feels like many hip-hop artists who get into the game to leave the streets are targeted just the same — if not worse. There’s a tremendous divide between artists who see the legal system as draconian and officials of the state who see artists as embodiments as the worst of their rhymes instead of artists plying their creative license.
Additionally, our current probation system represents the opposite of reclamation in most states, seemingly functioning in order to keep formerly incarcerated individuals at figurative arm’s length, ripe for the opportunity to snatch them back with stringent sentences for innocuous violations or to tack debt onto them for being poor. It may be easy to shrug at Meek’s situation and note, “that’s the law, he broke it,” but the law and officials enforcing it aren’t infallible or even sensible. Their continued reticence to convict law enforcement officers for their brutality despite even having video evidence of misconduct proves that.
Today is Election Day. Look to see what criminal justice reform initiatives are being voted on in your state. While they can’t help Meek right now, they may be able to help him and people like him in the future.