Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Reform Alliance
Grammy nominated artist Meek Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, is no stranger to the criminal justice system. He was sentenced to prison at just nineteen years old. In 2017 he was sentenced up to four years in prison for violating his probation after an alleged altercation at the airport and for riding a dirt bike in New York while filming a music video.
After an arduous legal battle, Williams was finally released in 2018 and declared“While I am fortunate to have the resources to fight this unjust situation, I understand that many people of color across the country do not have this luxury and I plan to use my platform to do the light on these problems.
Williams stayed true to his words. He founded a non-profit association, REFORM Alliance, a year later alongside Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin and other prominent leaders in entertainment, business and philanthropy. The organization was established “Replace America’s criminal justice system with a restorative approach where people can reenter society with dignity, create meaningful pathways to work, and feel equipped to succeed.”
Last August, the REFORM Alliance partnered with Columbia University to fund research on incarceration and its effects. REFORM’s new research and implementation department awarded a grant to the Columbia Justice Lab, including assignment is “to fundamentally rethink justice policy through actionable research, community-centered policy development, and sustained engagement of diverse groups.” Since academic research on probation and parole has historically been scarce, REFORM hopes to bring together experts in the field to examine how these two topics are intrinsically linked in aspects that go beyond imprisonment.
The partnership facilitated the release of a special issue publish of an academic journal (“Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science”) to examine tangible, evidence-based solutions to address the challenges of the US probation and parole system. The series of articles, “From Supervision to Opportunity: Reimagining Probation and Parole,” also assesses opportunities that can be used by legislators and other practice-based stakeholders to improve our system of justice.
This compendium reveals clear and blatant data: “compared to the general population, people on probation or parole are almost 3 times more likely to be unemployed, formerly incarcerated people have an average income of approximately $11,300, compared to $30,000 for their non-justice counterparts, while 8 million people live in poverty because of contact with the justice system.
Teresa Hodge, a technology and human rights fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a leading criminal justice reform activist, is the author of one of the articles, “Moving from Awareness to Urgent Action: A Call for Relevant Data and a Human-Centered Reentry Approach.” She is herself a victim of the criminal justice system, having been incarcerated for 70 months.
Hodge told ESSENCE, “I have witnessed the missed opportunities that result from the exclusion of communities impacted by justice – from stable employment and careers, from housing and other essential services, and even from university research”.
“Through this collaboration,” says Hodge, “some of the nation’s leading academic researchers have come together to critically assess the ways in which our current system contributes to cycles of poverty and robs communities of a fair chance. Notably, these scholarly papers also provide a clear path to meaningful change in parole and probation policies. We still have a long way to go, but the partnership between the REFORM Alliance and Columbia Justice Lab challenges our country to do better and is a crucial step in the right direction.