Activist, author, and political commentator Van Jones is heading up a super squad of high-profile figures in the effort to reform the U.S. prison system under an initiative called the Reform Alliance. The team is made up of leaders from a cross-section of industries, including the arts, entertainment, sports, business, and government. Each co-founder has access to a public platform in which they hope to amplify existing prison reform efforts. “We’re not here to reinvent the wheel, but accelerate it,” emphasized Jones in an interview with New York Magazine.
Reform Alliance specifically aims to address the ways that the current parole and probation system keeps prisoners — mostly Black men — in a cycle of incarceration. According to report on 2016’s prison population, Black prisoners are imprisoned at five times the rate of Whites. Latinos are also incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, though the gap is less glaring. There are currently over 4 million people on probation or parole.
Meek Mill in Rigged Prison System
Musician Meek Mill, one of the co-founders of Reform Alliance, experienced this injustice firsthand. He served almost a year in prison for a drug and weapons charge over a decade ago and was sentenced to five years of probation. He promptly violated probation by stepping foot outside of Philadelphia without getting approval from authorities, which landed him back in prison for another five months and extended his probation to a ten-year period.
Most recently, he violated his probation by popping a wheelie on a dirt bike, for which a judge sentenced him to two to four years in state prison. “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court,” said Judge Genece Brinkley, who had presided over his other trials as well. Brinkley applied this sentence against the recommendation of his probation officer and the Assistant District Attorney.
His peers advocated for him in the media. “He caught a charge, he was about 19, he’s 30 now, he’s been on probation 11 years,” said Jay-Z upon hearing about Mill’s 2017 sentence. Jay-Z is another co-founder of Reform Alliance. “F*cking 11 years. Now he got to do two to four years because he got arrested being on a bike popping a f*cking wheelie.”
Advocating for the Powerless
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, and Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, among others, are also co-founders. Kraft had visited Mill in jail, where they formed a friendship. “Going there and seeing him, I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night when I got home. Because here I’m thinking how out of touch something like myself is with what’s really going on.” In discussing the Reform Alliance, Kraft pointed out the broader social impact of a current prison system that holds Americans back from making contributions to society. “[He’s] put in jail where taxpayers are paying to keep him going, and he’s not employing all the people he could be employing and generating all of the tax dollars he could do.”
Mill explained to New York Magazine that his experience with the prison system compelled him to take on the fight for others who aren’t in his position of celebrity. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m here to speak for the ones who don’t have a voice. I didn’t ask to be the face of reform, but I want to bridge gaps and make the world a better place, especially for my culture,” he said.