University of Pennsylvania

Criminal Justice Reform is Necessary for Equality by Oluwabomi Fagbemi @ University of Pennsylvania

I attended #ReformPhilly: Bringing Injustice to Light, an event organized by Roc Nation in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s Political Science department and student activist groups such as BARS: Beyond Arrests Rethinking Systematic Oppression on Tuesday the 14th of March. The event was in support of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill who is currently serving a sentence of 2-4 years for technical violations of his parole. Meek, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, was first arrested at the age of 18 in 2007 on drug and gun charges.

He was arrested by an officer who has recently been proven to be corrupt and was convicted with no real evidence against him besides the officers testimony. In addition to this, during the arrest, Meek alleges he was the victim of police brutality and his mugshot depicts him with bandages and a swollen eye. The arresting officer (who was the sole witness) was revealed to be on a list of police officers whom prosecutors have sought to keep off the witness stand over allegations of misconduct. This information about the corrupt officers compiled by the District Attorney’s office was held kept secret from defendants and defense lawyers by the former District Attorney, Seth Williams, who is now in federal prison for corruption. As a result of this prior arrest, Meek, now 30 years old, has spent his entire adult life on probation. The trial itself has been particularly controversial. Meek was sentenced in November 2017 by the judge presiding his case, Genece Brinkley, contrary to the recommendation of the District Attorney’s Office. Judge’s Brinkley’s conduct has been the subject of much controversy recently, with allegations ranging from her requesting the rapper remake a 90s R&B song to attempting to trap individuals in the system by imposing excessively long probationary periods. Judge Brinkley has a reputation for being a particular tough judge to deal with. Meek had originally been sentenced for a non-violent crime and his probation violation came from riding dirt bikes in the street in New York City.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, opened the event by addressing racial incarceration across the U.S. He was then followed by a conversation between the Rev. Al Sharpton, Meek’s mother Kathy Williams, as well as his attorney, Joe Tacopina. All speakers were keen to make it clear that Meek’s case is a notable one, in part due to his celebrity status as well as due to the numerous perversions of justice surrounding the case. It is however despite that, emblematic of the plight many individuals face in America, and more specifically in Pennsylvania, where a third of the 50,000 individuals in state prisons are there due to technical violations of their probation. As such, #FreeMeek has become a rallying cry used to promote criminal justice reform, and and more specifically protest the unjust incarceration of many in the country.

A personal takeaway from this event, was the need to erase harmful narratives that adversely affect black people in America. A reminder was given of the term “super-predators”. This term coined by Hillary Clinton in a 1996 speech scapegoated African-American youth was used while further describing them as being devoid of conscience and empathy. This type of rhetoric is dangerous and is reminiscent of the language Donald Trump used to describe Mexicans immigrants during his presidential campaign. “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” Clinton said in the speech which was promoting the 1996 crime bill that many deem responsible for the explosion in the rate of incarceration of black males.

A recurring theme throughout that event was that the continued maintenance of the prison-industrial complex disenfranchises many individuals and that poor, black people who are already marginalized in society are being alienated further by being excluded from the democratic process as convicted felons do not possess the right to vote. That this system operates at the detriment of so many for the profit of a few does not seem to be indicative of a fair justice system.This ideology of racial inferiority has been promoted historically through slavery, legislation such as Jim Crow, and currently the criminal justice system. Mass incarceration in the form that it currently exists in the United States disproportionately affects a significant proportion of a minority group that has been historically oppressed in the country. These individuals are barred from the democratic process and have limited employment prospects. So, the effects trickle down to the communities these individuals are from, perpetuating a cycle of misery and disenfranchisement.

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