Meek Mill, Jay-Z, and more start criminal justice reform foundation
"Meek and I started shifting our conversation from ‘How do we get him out of prison?’ to ‘How do we apply this to millions of other people who are unfairly caught within the system?’
Meek Mill, 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, and Jay-Z have announced the formation of Reform Alliance, an organization whose goal is to reform the American criminal justice system.
Rubin and the two rappers joined with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, and other high-profile business leaders at a news conference in New York on Wednesday launching the alliance and announcing CNN host Van Jones will serve as CEO.
The Reform Alliance, which will be cochaired by Mill and Rubin, grew out the #FreeMeek movement that took hold after Philadelphia rapper Mill — born Robert Rihmeek Williams — was sentenced to two to four years in prison for parole violations relating to a 2008 arrest.
The perceived harshness of that sentence — for an altercation at the St. Louis airport (for which misdemeanor charges were later dropped) and a New York incident in which the rapper was filmed popping a wheelie on a dirt bike and charged with reckless endangerment — turned Mill into an international cause celebre and a symbol of justice reform.
Then, last February, the Inquirer reported a former Philadelphia police officer had accused a fellow officer of lying in an effort to put Mill behind bars. “That’s when I told Meek, you’ll be out of prison in three days,” remembers Rubin, the billionaire founder of the Fanatics sports apparel company and Mill’s most ardent supporter.
It wasn’t until April, however, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Mill “extraordinary relief” and released him on bail. But Rubin and Mill used the intervening three months to make plans that have resulted in the Reform Alliance initiative.
"Between those periods of time, I realized that the problem wasn’t just specific to Meek, that the criminal justice system was fundamentally broken,” says Rubin. “That’s when Meek and I started shifting our conversation from ‘How do we get him out of prison?’ to ‘How do we apply this to millions of other people who are unfairly caught within the system?’ ”
“Creating the Reform Alliance is one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Mill, who’s scheduled to perform on Saturday Night Live this weekend in support of his acclaimed new album, Championships.
“If you thought my case was unfair, there are millions of others dealing with worse situations and caught up in the system without committing crimes," he said. "With this alliance, we want to change outdated laws, give people hope, and reform a system that’s stacked against us.”
“I’m from Marcy Projects, I’m from Brooklyn, and this has been a part of my life. I grew up with this issue,” Jay-Z said at the news conference, held at John Jay College in Manhattan and live-streamed on Rubin’s Instagram at @michaelrubin. “If someone commits a crime, they should go to jail, but these things are disproportionate and the whole world knows it. It’s a humane issue.”
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go from powerlessness and hopelessness to real power," Jones said. "That’s what’s available here today. We’re going to fight different.”
In arguing for the need for reform, Mill and Rubin cite 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics figures that 6.6 million people in the United States are caught up in the criminal justice system, with 2.1 million incarcerated and 4.5 million people on parole or probation.
The alliance plans to take aim at the latter number.
“There’s a lot of focus on the people on prison,” Rubin said in a phone interview before Wednesday’s news conference. “There’s very little focus on the 4.5 million people on probation or parole. That’s really what creates the vicious cycle of sending people back to prison.”
The majority, Rubin said, are re-incarcerated for “technical probation violations,” with the top two examples being “dirty urine from smoking marijuana” and a failure to show up for appointments with parole officers.
The other Reform Alliance partners are hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb, banker Michael Novogratz, and venture capitalist Robert Smith. All told, the organization will start with $50 million invested from its various principals. They were chosen, Rubin says, because “they had a ton of capital they could contribute individually, and they cared deeply about this issue. And I wanted people who had a massive platform so they could help make a difference.”
Rubin says the alliance — which can be found on the internet at reformnow.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @reform — will work to change laws on a state-by-state basis while running a public awareness campaign.
“It’s about changing laws, changing policies, and really just educating people," Rubin said. "You’ve got to start a movement. And I want to be clear: Meek believes and I believe and all of our partners believe that there are a lot of people who belong in prison. We want our communities to be safe and our law enforcement officers to be safe. But there are also a lot of people who don’t belong in prison who are incarcerated.”
Thirty CEO candidates were interviewed, Rubin says, before Jones was chosen to lead the organization. “For me, I used to think of him as a TV personality. What I didn’t understand is that this is a guy who’s taken his entire life to focus on criminal justice reform, but he’s never had the platform that we’re going to deliver, the amount of capital we have.”
As for Mill, whose Motivation Tour kicks off Feb. 19 in Miami and is scheduled to play the Met Philadelphia on March 15 and 16, Rubin says his legal status remains unchanged since the summer of 2018. He remains out of prison on bail and is still scheduled to be on probation until 2023. “I just wanna get off probation I been on the s--- my whole life,” he tweeted Monday. “11 years of asking for permission.”
Mill’s case is still assigned to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Genece Brinkley, who handed down the two- to four-year sentence in November 2017. His lawyers have appealed to Pennsylvania State Superior Court for a new trial, with no word as to when a decision might come down.
“I’d say for somebody who’s been on probation now for 11 years and has another five years left of probation, he couldn’t be doing any better,” Rubin says. “But he goes to bed every night and wakes up not knowing if that’s the day they’re going to try to put him back into jail.”
—Nick Vadala provided additional reporting.