North Philadelphia native Robert Rihmeek Williams has been on probation for 11 years — a seemingly endless, telescoping sentence that has dogged him throughout his ascendancy as Meek Mill, the chart-topping rapper and, lately, activist for criminal justice reform.
Now, while still under the weight of Pennsylvania’s unusually onerous probation laws — which, unlike most other states, allow supervision to stretch as long as the maximum legal sentence for a crime — he’s seeking to change them.
At a highly produced Tuesday afternoon news conference within a corral set up on Thomas Paine Plaza, angled to ensure a soaring City Hall backdrop, Meek Mill, 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, and CNN personality Van Jones — who are together the cochairmen of an advocacy group called the REFORM Alliance — stood alongside state lawmakers and business leaders to announce draft legislation to reform probation in Pennsylvania.
“I’m here to speak for the ones that don’t have a voice,” Mill said.
But the actual legislation likely to garner support from this broad coalition may not be as radical as he would like. A bill already proposed in the state Senate would cap probation terms, disallow consecutive probation sentences, and limit jail time for violations that are not new crimes, such as failing to report or traveling without permission.
Lawmakers — led by State Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat, and Sheryl Delozier, a Republican from outside Harrisburg — are still hashing out the proposed legislation, but it appears limiting probation terms is not on the table.
Instead, the focus is on technical violations, which could include anything from missing an appointment to testing positive for drugs. A staffer for Harris said one goal is to require a hearing with a judge before anyone can be locked up on such a violation (currently, people can languish in jail for a week or, in some counties, for months, before seeing a judge). Also on the wish list: barring judges from incarcerating people for using marijuana; preventing them from extending probation due to nonpayment of fines and fees; and disallowing them from issuing violations to those who travel outside the jurisdiction unless they can show it was to evade supervision.
For those convicted of new misdemeanors while on probation, one proposal is to limit any jail time for the probation violations to 90 days. (Currently, violators may be resentenced to the legal maximum sentence for their original crime.)
The bill could also create new avenues to get off probation early — by allotting 15 days of “earned time” for every 30 days without a violation, and by ensuring that those who are free of violations after a year have the chance at a hearing to request their probation be terminated.
Harris said he’s seeking to enact a fundamental transformation of what the probation and parole system is about: to focus on rehabilitation, he said, instead of retaliation.
“For too long, probation has been the quicksand of the criminal justice system. ... Even as you try to get out, it pulls you back in,” he said.
Too often, he said, people are reincarcerated just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “If you are a black male in Philadelphia, the wrong place at the wrong time could be anywhere you find yourself in the city of Philadelphia. ... That was not what the criminal justice system was made for.”
Delozier, who has also sponsored tough-on-crime bills like Marsy’s Law and a bill to garnish bail refunds for unpaid restitution, pitched probation reform as a common-sense solution necessary in a state that ranks third in the nation for the rate of people under supervision. There are nearly 300,000 people on probation or parole statewide.
“We have too many people on probation," she said. "Our probation agents cannot focus on the ones that they need to focus on.”
The bill in progress is, not coincidentally, designed to address many of the side-effects of probation that Mill experienced firsthand.
The rapper described trying to explain his incarceration for noncriminal probation violations to his then-6-year-old son. “My son came to see me and asked me what I was arrested for. I had to tell him, ‘Popping a wheelie.' ... People lose their jobs, lose their homes for not even committing a crime."
Harris and Delozier said that, while the language of the bill is still in flux, they expect bipartisan support. They already count backing from advocates ranging from conservative groups (the Commonwealth Foundation, Americans for Prosperity) to the ACLU of Pennsylvania. That’s a coalition that has come together around a number of criminal justice reform issues over the last year, and successfully lobbied for the Clean Slate law to automatically seal criminal records in the last session.
Even prosecutors are on board with an overhaul, according to Lindsey Vaughan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
“We believe there are too many people on county probation and that our laws can be changed to ensure that the right people are being supervised and that only those who ought to be sent back to prison for a probation violation are,” she wrote in an email. “We have and will continue to be working with legislators to help craft a solid bill that will achieve these goals without having any unintended consequences.”
The Republican lawmaker chairing the House Judiciary Committee, a crucial gatekeeper for any such legislation, did not return a call for comment. A spokesperson for Sen. Lisa Baker, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the committee will hold hearings on the issue in the coming weeks.
Still, bystanders marveled that it’s not every day that Rep. Mike Jones, a conservative lawmaker from York, would be followed at the lectern by the likes of Pittsburgh Democratic Rep. Ed Gainey. But they found common ground.
Jones cited law enforcement resources and familiar “Right on Crime” arguments about protecting individual liberty and eliminating waste. “Every time we incarcerate an able-bodied person, we pay an economic price for doing so.”