Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Commentary: Meek Mill’s Sentence Reveals Problems with Pennsylvania’s Extreme Use of Court Supervision

Rapper Meek Mill arrives at the criminal justice center in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Commentary: Meek Mill’s Sentence Reveals Problems with Pennsylvania’s Extreme Use of Court Supervision


Hip-hop artist Meek Mill was named one of the 100 most influential Philadelphians by Philadelphia Magazine. However, rather than his music, his recent prison sentence is what has garnered the spotlight, helping to focus attention on the problems of our criminal justice system, specifically the issue of court supervision in Pennsylvania and its impact on mass incarceration.

This past week, on November 6, Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced Mill, 30, to two to four years in state prison for a probation violation. Over ten years ago, an 18-year-old Mill was arrested for drug and gun possession. In 2009, Judge Brinkley sentenced Mill — who was then known by his given name Robert Rahmeek Williams — to 11 ½ to 23 months in prison, followed by eight years of probation. Since that time, the judge has overseen his case.

Many people are outraged over the injustice of Mill’s lengthy sentence, and they should be. Criminal justice advocate Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation recording company signed the Philadelphia native, took to Facebook and called the sentence “unjust and heavy handed,” pledging to “always stand by and support Meek Mill, both as he attempts to right this wrongful sentence and then in returning to his musical career.” Said CNN contributor Van Jones, “It is absolutely outrageous. It is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard of a case where a brother stands before a judge; the prosecutor says, do not put this brother in jail; the probation office says do not put this brother in jail; And, for some reason, the judge says I’m going to put him in jail any way.”

And a petition on Change.org in support of Mill is closing in on 200,000 signatures.

The public outcry over this case underscores how people are sent to prison over technical violations versus direct violations. A probationer incurs a direct violation if he or she is convicted of a new crime while on probation. A person who has failed to comply with the terms of their probation — but who has not committed a new crime — receives a technical violation. Pennsylvania law permits a judge to incarcerate a defendant only if he or she already committed, or is likely to commit, a new crime. Even more problematic, that same statute allows a judge to impose prison time if “such a sentence is essential to vindicate the authority of the court” — which means the law allows a court to incarcerate someone merely if the judge feels disrespected.

What did Mill do to cause the judge to send him to prison? This past year, he was arrested for a fight in the St. Louis airport — charges were dropped — and took a dismissal deal for reckless driving and “popping a wheelie” on his dirt bike.

Meanwhile, 4.65 million adults in the U.S. are on probation or parole, or 1 in 53 adults. Pennsylvania — which has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast — has the fourth highest number of people under government supervision, long after they committed their crimes, with 280,000 people as of 2015, and one-third of all prison beds in Pennsylvania are occupied by people who violated the terms of their probation or parole. This comes at great expense to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, diverting precious resources from education and social services.

Meek Mill has become the face of probation and parole and the excesses of a system that ensnares so many without celebrity status. When the law allows judges to incarcerate people under their supervision solely because of a technical violation — when they committed no new crime and pose no threat whatsoever — we have a problem.


Reggie Shuford became executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania in September 2011. Prior to joining the ACLU-PA, he served as the director of law and policy at the Equal Justice Society (EJS), a national strategy group heightening consciousness on race in the law and popular discourse. From 1995–2010, Reggie served as senior staff counsel in the national ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. The views expressed here are Reggie’s and do not necessarily reflect those of In Justice Today.

Texas Sheriff Says Jail Population Must Be Reduced

Jail isn’t the “appropriate place” for all that get arrested, he says

Sheriff Javier Salazar

Texas Sheriff Says Jail Population Must Be Reduced

Jail isn’t the “appropriate place” for all that get arrested, he says


Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar would like to see fewer people locked up in his jails.

In a recent interview with News 4 San Antonio, Salazar said, “Jail may not be the appropriate place for everybody who gets arrested.”

Salazar’s comments show that even those charged with locking people up are beginning to recognize that America incarcerates too many of its citizens. The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

Salazar’s main issue appears to be that it’s hard to operate the jail when there are so many people locked up, but his solution is similar to that of many criminal justice reformers: lock up fewer people.

Salazar said that he’s looking to reduce the overall jail population. The average jail population has dropped slightly this year from 4,483 people a day in July to 4,356 in October.

But Salazar said he wants to see a much larger reduction.

It’s easier to manage the jail and move inmates that might get into fights with each other when you have fewer inmates. But his jails are close to capacity, which make it more challenging, Salazar said.

The Sheriff said he has moved 82 inmates to the jail in nearby Karnes County because of overcrowding concerns. He hopes to see a further reduction of the number of people locked up via increased use of GPS Monitoring and Bexar County’s new Cite and Release Pilot Program.

That pilot program gives police discretion to ticket people who could be arrested for low level offenses like possession of marijuana less than four ounces. People who receive a ticket would not be arrested or have to go to jail, making it similar to a traffic violation.

Other crimes where police could ticket someone would include vandalism or property damage under $500, refusing to pay a bill at a hotel or restaurant if the cost is under $750, and driving with an invalid license.

Salazar has been a vocal supporter of the pilot program, with his comments being much more effusive than those of District Attorney Nico LaHood, who announced the program earlier this year, but also said the program could become permanent or be discontinued depending on how effective it is.

“I can say this is huge,” Salazar said at the press conference announcing the pilot program. “This will definitely change the face of how we do things in Bexar County. The jail is for people who we’re afraid of, not just for people we’re mad at. … If we don’t find a better way to do things, we’re going to be wasting money and resources.”

The police officer on the street will get to decide whether to make an arrest or issue a ticket, but Salazar’s vocal support for the program could encourage his officers to write more tickets.

More in Explainers

Commentary: Attorney General Sessions Says He Wants To Target Gangs, But In The Federal Bureau of Prisons Gangs Find A Home Base, And A Place To Flourish

FCI Gilmer

Commentary: Attorney General Sessions Says He Wants To Target Gangs, But In The Federal Bureau of Prisons Gangs Find A Home Base, And A Place To Flourish


With the Department of Justice targeting national gangs like MS-13, the Trump administration has declared a war on national gangs. “MS-13 members brutally rape, rob, extort and murder,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the International Association of Chiefs of Police at a conferencein Philadelphia in late October. “Just like we took Al Capone off the streets with our tax laws, we will use whatever laws we have to get MS-13 off of our streets.” But throwing more gang members in an already overcrowded federal prison system will only exacerbate the problem.

I spent 21 years in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The number of federal prisoners is small compared to the headcount of those incarcerated at the state and local level. But the BOP, a subdivision of the Department of Justice, makes up a significant part of the total DOJ budget. Indeed, in 2014, then Attorney General Eric Holder lamented that “One third of the budget at the Justice Department now goes to the Bureau of Prisons.”

Like thousands of others caught up in the drug war, I served my sentence in the BOP on drug charges. I saw, first hand, how national gangs — many of which have their roots in the prison system — proliferate in the BOP. I watched as US Attorneys filled the BOP with low level Sureños- Southern California Latinos beholden to the Mexican Mafia (La eMe) — in the 1990s for low level drug offenses. There are Sureño cliques in federal prisons now all across the country. I was housed at FCC Forrest City in Arkansas and they were 30 deep on the compound. A California gang omnipresent in the deep south. The BOP functions as an organizational base for gangs who use it as a testing ground to recruit new members.

When I was incarcerated at FCI Gilmer in West Virginia, I talked to an MS-13 member from Los Angeles who told me how the LA gang members would get deported back to El Salvador or Honduras after serving time in the BOP. When they went back to their home countries they brought the gang with them.

The BOP is a center of power for national gangs and behind the prison walls they do whatever they can to increase their stature. The Aryan Brotherhood (AB) and Mexican Mafia have killed at will in the BOP with little or no opposition from authorities. AB shot-caller Barry “The Baron” Mills committed his first murder in the BOP in 1979 at USP Atlanta and continued the gang’s killing spree over multiple decades, which culminated in a massive racketeering indictment in 2005. And even though Mills was convicted of murder he still maintains his position on the AB’s ruling council in the BOP.

Other gangs like La eMe have also killed with ruthless abandon in the BOP. Mexican Mafia gang leader Manuel “Tati” Torrez was stomped to death by a fellow gang member at ADX Florence in 2005, the BOP’s Supermax where inmates spend 23 hours per day in their cells, leading the New York Times to call the facility “The Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

Such violence exists because BOP staff and investigators are complacent and satisfied with the status quo. Enabling the gangs to police the prison and even parlaying with gang shot callers to determine who can be let out on the yard. BOP staff give the gangs free reign and only step in afterward to clean up the mess.

Worse, the response by the BOP and the DOJ to its gang problem has not been to take any meaningful steps such as renunciation, debriefing, or rival gang member integration programs to curb the violence at its own facilities. Instead federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty in case after case involving BOP violence, such as Joseph Ebron who in 2009 was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of a fellow inmate at the BOP’s notoriously violent USP Beaumont in Texas, also known as “Bloody Beaumont.”

It’s darkly ironic that Attorney General Sessions is targeting the very national gangs who thrive in a prison system housing 200,000 inmates directly under DOJ control.


Seth Ferranti did 21 years in the Bureau of Prisons for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense. He started writing a column for VICE magazine while in prison and now that he’s out he’s penning features for Penthouse, making true crime documentaries about injustices (White Boy), running Gorilla Convict– the publishing house he started in prison, and enjoying life with his wife Diane, who he married while he was in BOP custody. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

More in Podcasts