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The Criminal-Justice Data Behind Meek Mill's Latest Prison Sentence

The rapper's experience with probation is far from unusual for ex-prisoners.
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Meek Mill performs during V-103 Live Pop Up Concert at Philips Arena on March 25th, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Meek Mill performs during V-103 Live Pop Up Concert at Philips Arena on March 25th, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Meek Mill really can't get a break in court. On Monday, a Philadelphia judge sentenced the rapper—born Robert Rahmeek Williams—to two to four years of prison for violating probation stemming from a 2008 conviction involving gun and drug possession. Nearly a decade later, Meek Mill remains under strict legal supervision after his probation was extended several times due to minor violations, like leaving the Philadelphia area to perform without permission.

Meek Mill's lawyer, Joe Tacopina, vowed on Tuesday to appeal the ruling, accusing Judge Genece E. Brinkley of exhibiting "enormous bias" in her treatment of the rapper's case, the New York Times reports. Fans and peers in the music industry also expressed widespread outrage about the sentencing. #FreeMeek tweets flooded Twitter on Monday evening, and a petition asking Pennsylvania's governor to re-evaluate the sentence gained nearly 60,000 signatures within a day of being posted. On Facebook, Jay-Z called the sentence "unjust and heavy handed"; rappers A$AP Ferg, Rick Ross, T.I., and Nipsey Hussle all offered support on social media as well.

Meek Mill's treatment by the legal system is not unusual. In some ways, the rapper's experience shines a light on systemic issues within the justice system, particularly showing how difficult it is to escape once one has entered.

  • Like Meek Mill, at least 4.65 million adults in the United States are under some form of post-conviction supervision—probation or parole. That's one out of every 53 adults in the U.S. and more than twice as many people as the number who are currently incarcerated.
  • These Americans face the prospect of being sent back to prison due to minor infractions. In 2014, Meek Mill served six months in jail for traveling to perform without permission from Brinkley; he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest in 2016 for a similar trip. Across the U.S., at least 61,000 people are serving time in prison for minor parole violations such as "missing an appointment with a parole officer, failing a urine test, or staying out past curfew," according to the Marshall Project, whose estimate encompassed data from just 42 states. A study published in October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 73 percent of probation violations result from a missed meeting with a probation officer. The most common probation violation resulting in re-incarceration is moving residences without permission, according to the study.
  • Meek Mill's most recent probation violations, both from earlier this year, include a minor scuffle at a St. Louis airport with a fan who wanted a picture and riding a dirt bike on an empty street in Harlem during a music video shoot. The charges were dropped and dismissed, respectively. "I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court," Brinkley told Meek Mill in her Monday decision, according to the New York Times.

    There is evidence that giving people on probation a break leads to less trouble down the line—if the break is early release from probation. Between 2007 and 2012, the New York City Department of Probation increased the percentage of people on probation it released early from 3 percent to 17 percent. A Harvard University study found that those discharged early during 2010 were less likely to be arrested for a new felony (3 percent of early releases were re-arrested) than those who were kept under supervision for their entire term (4.3 percent).
  • The police tactics that led to Meek Mill's original 2008 arrest, as the rapper describes it, resemble "stop-and-frisk" tactics that were popularized by New York City police commissioner William Bratton in the 1990s. "Stop-and-frisk" has been widely criticized for its effect on communities of color, and, in one specific practice of the policy, ruled unconstitutional. According to Meek Mill, he was walking to a corner store when he was swarmed by police, who handcuffed and searched him. The police found a gun and drugs and beat him brutally, he claims: "[I had] a concussion, stitches, braids ripped out. My blood was on the ceiling, on the floor," he told Billboard in 2015.

    Beyond "stop-and-frisk," the police disproportionately use physical force on black Americans compared to other racial groups. Though police department record-keeping on the subject is notoriously inconsistent and insufficient, a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research paper found that police in several major cities were more likely to use non-lethal physical force on black men and women than on people of other racial groups. Black Americans are also 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police, according to the Washington Post's database of police shootings.

Of course, there is one element of Meek Mill's situation that makes it profoundly unrepresentative of the majority of people encountering the American criminal justice system: He's rich. An estimated $9 million net worth allows Meek Mill to hire top-notch lawyers who are capable of devoting significant amounts of time to advocate for him and appeal his new sentence. More than 80 percent of people who are charged with felonies, in contrast, are too poor to afford a lawyer, and must rely on representation from a public defender. But public defense is almost universally poorly funded, and, as a result, public defenders are overtaxed with cases. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 75 percent of public defenders are forced to take on more than the maximum recommended number of cases per year, and many far exceed it.