On a cold November evening in 2017, hundreds of supporters showed up outside the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center to protest a ruling that sent rapper Meek Mill back to prison over violations of his probation. The crowd included activists, athletes and rappers campaigning for Meek's pardoning but, more widely, for reforms of the criminal justice system that they saw as the major cause for landing the popular rapper back in jail.
That was almost two years ago, and while late last month Meek was finally released from under any kind of control of the criminal justice system, the attention his incarceration for parole violations brought to the system of parole is continuing to bring attention to a troubling issue.
At a time when audiences jump from one celebrity drama to the next, Mill's case grabbed attention because its details seem more far-fetched, but also because so many people in America are similarly caught in the system.
MEEK MILL'S CASE
At 19 years old, Mill was arrested for carrying a firearm without a license and possession of drugs, according to the court docket in his case, which goes back to 2007. Mill was released in early 2009 for good behavior, and given a seven-year probation period by Judge Genece Brinkley. Within that period, Meek failed to report his travel plans to the judge multiple times, resulting in more jail time in 2014 and 90 days of house arrest in 2016. Along with the house arrest sentence, Brinkley gave Meek six more years of probation.
Meek then had two more run-ins with the law in 2017 — a scuffle at St. Louis Lambert International Airport in March and driving a dirt bike in Harlem in August — and even though both charges were subsequently dropped, they were violations of probation, and the apparent final straws for Brinkley, who sent him back to prison.
HUGE NUMBERS AND COST
Across America, parole and probation violations are filling state prisons. A new report by the Council of State Governments, which analyzed parole and probation violations from 2012 to 2017, found 45% of prison admissions were a result of probation or parole violations, either for new offenses or for failure to fulfill a requirement of the supervision agreement.
"I think this (Mill’s case) is an opportunity for us to have a much larger conversation around how broken the criminal justice system is and the fact that people who are on parole and probation, like Meek, have very long probation terms and are still not free — they're still basically incarcerated," says Jessica Jackson, the national director and co-founder of #cut50, one of the organizers of the Meek Mill rally. "As devastating as it is to Meek and his family and his loved ones and his supporters, this has also been an opportunity to really talk about the larger systemic issues and shine a light on what thousands and thousands, really 4.65 million people who are on parole and probation, are struggling with every day."
In 2017, 4,336 people in Kansas, or 68% of people entering the state’s prisons were people who violated parole or probation, often for minor slip-ups. That means that if someone missed an appointment with their supervising officer, failed a drug test, or didn’t pay a court-ordered fine, they may have ended up behind bars.
The numbers were even more alarming in Missouri, where 77% of the state prison admissions in 2017 were due to people violating parole or probation. The 14,891 people incarcerated on technicalities put a strain on Missouri’s system.
Kansas prisons are also overcrowded with the state recently contracting with a private prison in Arizona to handle the state’s overload.
The Council of State Governments report provides a nationwide and state-by-state look at the number of parole and probation violations within state prisons. Overall, 45% of prison admissions were a result of violations, either for new offenses or for failure to fulfill a requirement of the supervision agreement. In 20 states, that number was above 50%. Missouri and Kansas’s rates of 77% and 69%, placed them as No. 2 and No. 5 respectively, for prison admissions for violations in 2017.
Other states with high rates of incarceration for violations include: Utah with the highest percentage, at 79%, Wisconsin at 70%, Idaho at 69%, and South Dakota tied Kansas at 68%. Only Arkansas and Massachusetts attributed less than 20% of admissions to violations.
On a given day, approximately 95,000 people nationwide were incarcerated due to technical violations, costing states $2.8 billion annually.
“No one thinks people should be sent to prison for a missed curfew or faulty paperwork — and yet this report shows these kinds of minor technical violations are contributing significantly to state prison populations," said Juliene James, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, which funded the analysis.
In Pennsylvania, where Mill was imprisoned, 54% of prison admissions were for supervision violations, with half of those resulting from technicalities. John Wetzel, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, called the consequences of these admissions “devastating.” He said that the report should be a wakeup call for state legislators, corrections departments, and the general public.
“As a taxpayer, when you see Pennsylvania is spending $100 million on parole violations, you should question that,” he said. “If we needed to spend $100 million to keep the public safe, we would, but jailing people for technical violations leads to further crime, because that severs people’s personal and social supports and eliminates their ability to have gainful employment.”
States have taken various strategies to address the number of people on parole or probation who have been caught in the revolving door leading back to prison. Initiatives have included reducing parole and probation sentence lengths, creating caps for returns on technical violations, limiting supervision rules, shortening sentences for good behavior, and reducing fines.The strain the 77% coming into the Missouri systems left the state with two obvious paths, said Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe: building two new prisons with a price tag over $200 million, or reform. The state chose the latter.
“This report validates the direction the State of Missouri has taken [to reduce] technical violations and revocations to prison,” Precythe said.
One thing that states struggle with across the board is the particularly tricky issue of violations due to drug use or possession. Wetzel said that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration of a state of emergency around opioids has allowed the Department of Corrections to work more closely with other state agencies. “We’re now partnering with the Department of Drugs and Alcohol to try treatment in the community, so that people who do heroin don’t end up in prison,” he said.
Pennsylvania is also experimenting with three different types of medication-assisted treatment in its prisons, with a special focus on people whose sentences are less than a year. The aim is to make sure that they can overcome their addiction before they get out. Missouri, by contrast, started the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which provides people on parole and probation with mental health and substance abuse treatment, along with wraparound services including employment coaches, peer support, and housing assistance.
NOT MORE BEDS
The heads of these corrections departments agree: the answer is not more beds. “The system, both prisons and supervision, has grown to have such a huge footprint, and the financial toll is unmatched,” said Wetzel. “And the most significant impacts are felt by poor communities, and communities of color.”
But Precythe said that data will be instrumental in helping states turn the situation around. Megan Quattlebaum, of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said she hopes states will take a close look at the data, and revisit the idea that probation and parole are meant to help people avoid incarceration. “Instead, in many cases we’re seeing the opposite effect. Many states have made recidivism reduction a public safety priority, but the harsh reality is that supervision fails nearly as often as it succeeds."