The music of Meek Mill was the unofficial soundtrack of the Philadelphia Eagles’s victory over the New England Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, yet the losing team’s owner, Robert Kraft, showed up earlier this week at the Chester, Pennsylvania facility where Mill is currently incarcerated to visit the rapper and speak out about his condition and about the urgent need for criminal justice reform.
Born 30 years ago in South Philadelphia as Robert Williams, Mill’s life was a constant struggle. His father was killed when Mill was five years old, and his mother had to resort to shoplifting to feed Mill and his sister. One of his uncles was a DJ, and Mill grew interested in hip hop, staying up late filling notebooks with rhymes and honing his skills in local rap battles. He formed his first group in high school, burning CDs of his music and convincing friends to pass them around. He was getting a reputation as a promising artist when, 18 years old, he walked to the store one day and was stopped by the police. He was carrying an unlicensed firearm. He was sentenced to 11-to-23 months in prison, and ended up serving six.
Upon his release, fortune smiled on Meek Mill. He was signed up by Rick Ross, released a few hit singles and then an album, and collaborated with artists as diverse as Mariah Carey and Lil Wayne. But in December of 2012, a judge found that Mill had violated the restrictions of his probation by scheduling performances before his travel permit was reinstated.
“You need to get yourself together,” Judge Genece Brinkley told Mill. “You can’t just thumb your nose at me.”
Thus began a long and strange saga, with Judge Brinkley repeatedly finding Mill in violation of his travel restrictions, confining him to his county of residence, and slapping him with bizarre punishments like a mandate etiquette course which, she said, was “in order to address his inappropriate social media use and crude language in the courtroom.” Mill kept going back to prison. Rather than realize that the terms of the probation made it very difficult for Mill to work in his profession, which depends heavily on touring, the judge chose to continue and punish him, making him pay the steepest price for his youthful transgression.
Tragically, cases like Mill’s aren’t rare. One out of every 37 adults in the United States, or nearly three percent of the adult population, is, according to the NAACP, “under some form of correctional supervision.” African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, and make up more than a third of the correctional population. Too often, these enraging statistics have little to do with protecting the well-being of Americans or preserving law and order and a lot to do with for-profit prisons in need of occupants, biased judges applying the law punitively, and other violations of justice.
It’s hard to imagine a topic American Jews—ourselves historically a minority that was often on the receiving in of systemic institutional bias and discrimination—should care more deeply about, and it’s hard to exaggerate the applause owed Robert Kraft and Michael Rubin, co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, who joined him on his visit.
“Amazing young man. I know how I’d feel if I was in the situation he is,” Kraft said after meeting Mill this week. “Every time I see him, I just come away more impressed. He’s very intelligent. And makes it clear to me we have to do something with criminal justice reform.” Amen to that, brother.