By Peter Hall | Pennsylvania Capital-Star
Five years after Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill was sent to prison for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed reforms to Pennsylvania’s probation system that advocates say will prevent similar injustices for hundreds of thousands of people.
The legislation, passed last Wednesday in the state House and Senate, limits when a person serving probation can be sent to prison for technical violations, such as the infraction that led a Philadelphia judge to sentence Mill to two to four years behind bars in 2017.
“We all learned from Meek’s case because it shined a light on the injustices in our probation system, how someone could be sentenced to prison for years for not committing a crime, but for just a technical violation of a long probation,” Shapiro said at a bill signing ceremony kast Friday in Philadelphia.
Mill, then an established artist, had called his friend Michael Rubin to go to court with him the day he was sentenced.
“That day, that phone call, that changed a lot of lives,” Rubin, the owner of sports merchandise retailer Fanatics, said at the bill signing.
“It was the most out of control, crazy experience I ever felt in my entire body, because I saw something so wrong happening that we had no ability to fix,” Rubin said. “I remember looking at Meek’s mom, and her looking at me and saying, ‘We will not stop until we get him out of prison together.’”
Mill was released after serving five months pending an appeal of his original conviction on drug and gun charges. The Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2019 granted Mill a new trial but the case was dropped amid questions about the credibility of the officer who originally arrested him. Former Gov. Tom Wolf pardoned Mill before he left office in 2022.
Rubin said he discussed Mill’s situation with Shapiro, then in his first term as attorney general. He said Shapiro told him: “What you need to do is take what happened to Meek and fix this for everybody.”
Rubin enlisted leaders in the sports and entertainment world, including Sean “Jay-Z” Carter and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, to start the REFORM Alliance. Since then the coalition has played a role in passing 18 criminal justice reform bills in 11 states, Rubin said.
Mill spoke tearfully at times about about the decade he spent on probation in and out of prison and risking violations to visit his son and mother in New Jersey.
“We tried to be better but they labeled us as felons, sent us back to jail. I had to fight against that the whole time to gain my respect and be who I am today,” Mill said. “I didn’t ask for this position. I don’t want to do it. It’s not for clout. It’s something that I stand for, and something that I live for, and I appreciate you all for helping me.”
Senate Bill 838, that Shapiro signed Friday, creates a presumption that probation terms end after two years for misdemeanors and four years for felonies, or after half has been served if that is a shorter time.
It creates incentives of a chance at early termination for people to maintain employment or pursue education while on probation. The legislation also requires courts to take people’s individual risk and needs into consideration when setting probation conditions and take into account people’s abilities to pay fines and restitution.
Some criminal justice reform advocates have been critical of the REFORM Alliance-backed legislation, saying that they were not included in drafting the language and that many of their concerns are not addressed.
“As a former public defender in Pennsylvania, I know firsthand just how badly Pennsylvania’s probation system is in need of meaningful reform,” Veronica Miller, senior policy counsel for criminal legal reform at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in a statement this week. “Unfortunately, this bill still falls woefully short of that goal.”
Miller said that while an amendment to the bill shortly before its passage corrected a glaring error that would have excluded defendants’ lawyers from probation review conferences, it does not address many of the structural problems in the probation system.
“From creating a debtor’s probation that keeps those who can’t afford restitution on probation indefinitely to making it easier for a judge to revoke probation because of a technical violation to failing to cap probation terms, this bill is a disappointment to those hoping for comprehensive probation reform,” Miller said.
Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne), one of the bill’s prime sponsors, addressed the criticism Friday, pointing to another piece of criminal justice reform legislation that headed to Shapiro’s desk this week as an example of how reform can evolve over time.
Clean Slate 3.0 is the third iteration of a law first passed in 2018 that automatically seals the records of conviction for lower level non-violent offenders who have not been convicted of another crime for 10 years. In 2020, the state passed an expansion and this year extended the automatic record sealing to certain low-level, non-violent drug felonies.
“We’re just getting started on this issue. This is not the end, I want to be clear about that,” state Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), who was a prime sponsor of the Clean Slate Law, said.