It’s been three years since hip-hop artist Meek Mill, along with some of his celebrity and billionaire friends, launched the REFORM Alliance – an organization dedicated to changing laws around probation and parole.
But some longstanding criminal justice reform activists have said that the suite of celebrity-backed legislation the organization is pushing in nearly a dozen states undermines their efforts and could cause more harm than good.
Already signed into law in Virginia, the REFORM bill has had “unintended consequences,” according to Jody Fridley, Virginia’s Criminal Sentencing Commission deputy director.
“This bill is indicative of the direction [criminal justice] reform is going that weakens the movement’s ability to create real reforms that would materially change the conditions of Black people,” Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, told The Intercept. “This is a net-widening bill and will be duplicated all over the country.”
According to criminal justice reform experts, the bill being pushed by REFORM lack critical provisions including capping the amount of time people spend on probation; not allowing people with new convictions to terminate probation; and overlooking technical violations – which make up a large bulk of probation violations – in certain instances.
Opponents of REFORM’s bill also said the bill included unnecessary punitive measures. Pennsylvania state Sen. Nikil Saval voted against the bill, saying it “was at best extremely confusing and circuitous, and at worst, harmful to the cause that it’s purportedly devoted to.”
“I don’t know how this bill came into being and that people think it’s progressive rather than regressive,” said Byron Cotter, director of alternative sentencing at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which opposes the bill. “It would have been [a progressive reform] in the early 2000s, but not now.”
That hasn’t stopped REFORM from moving ahead with its agenda in other states. The organization has already passed 13 bills in eight states.
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REFORM’s Chief Advocacy Officer Jessica Jackson noted the bill’s limitations but said some progress is better than none.
“While this bill does make improvements, we don’t believe that it causes any harm to any individual who is currently on probation,” Jackson said. “And we think this is a first step. It won’t fix all the problems.”
Meek Mill became the face of criminal justice reform after he was arrested in 2017 for a series of probation violations, including performing a motorcycle stunt in New York while filming a music video.
It led to Mill spending months in prison until attorneys, activists and outcry from supporters across the country were able to push for his release.
“A lot of people saw what was happening to Meek Mill, and they saw not just one egregious situation, but a mirror of the thousands of egregious cases just like this,” Clarise McCants, criminal justice campaign director for Color of Change, told TIME in a 2018 interview.
Mill himself hasn’t publicly commented on the criticism REFORM is receiving. However, he retweeted a quote from REFORM CEO Robert Rooks, noting how Mill’s experience brought mainstream attention to the movement.
“The beauty of REFORM is that it was born out of the experience of one Black man, @MeekMill. A Black man who was sentenced to 2-4 years in prison for a technical violation. There are millions of people in America who don’t get as much attention or support,” Rooks tweeted.
PHOTO: Entrepreneur and recording artist Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, from left, poses with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner and Fanatics executive chairman Michael Rubin, recording artist Meek Mill, Galaxy Digital CEO and founder Michael Novogratz, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, Third Point CEO and founder Daniel S. Loeb, and REFORM Alliance CEO and political activist Van Jones after the group announced a partnership to transform the American criminal justice system, in New York, Jan. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)