Meek Mill, the 2016 Billboard Music Award winner for top rap album, has become the unlikely poster child for the failures of our probation system.

His Tuesday release from Pennsylvania’s Chester State Correctional Institution on bail left many scratching their heads and others outraged over the failures that put him in custody in the first place.

He had been locked up since November on a minor probation violation. His comments from prison last week to CNN’s Don Lemon perfectly sum up the unreasonable effects of our system.

During the interview, Mill stated, “A lot of people, they get locked up for technical violations. … They lose their jobs, and they lose their family. Their kids go fatherless for months, years at a time, over small mistakes, not committing crimes.”

Near the end of the interview, when Lemon asked Mill whether he had a message for young black men who, like the two men recently arrested for sitting in a Starbucks, may come in contact with police, Mill said: “Be careful. … When you’re already a target and you’re in high-risk neighborhoods, where people go to jail a lot, be careful.”

Those words, and Mill’s incarceration, prompted a national rallying cry.

Mill initially made news five months ago when a judge locked him up after he popped a wheelie on a dirt bike— yes, that act constituted a violation of his probation.

His original offense — simple assault, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and possession of a loaded weapon — occurred 11 years ago. At that time, a judge put Mill on government supervision. He had to notify a probation officer every time he left town — an unreasonable ask for someone whose living hinges on performing across the country. The rapper’s probation also required regular drug testing. He ended up being subjected to those restrictions for more than a decade.

Mill’s story demonstrates the often excessive nature of probation in America: The musician had not been convicted of any new crimes since his original offense, but was slated to spend two to four years behind bars.

A system intended to keep folks out of prison is so restrictive that the process itself becomes a form of incarceration. It frequently places unreasonable conditions on individuals, keeps them under probationary confinements for far too long, and locks them up too readily for technical violations (minor breaches like popping a wheelie) that do nothing more than hinder hardworking people from making a living.

Probation, meant to aid progress, can hinder it

Nearly 4 million people were on probation in the USA in 2015, and they accounted for the majority of folks (about 81%) on supervision (either probation given in lieu of jail time or some other monitoring after incarceration such as parole).

In most jurisdictions, individuals on probation are given a checklist of requirements — rules regarding school, employment, travel restrictions, medication, supervision fees, changes to one’s residence, court-ordered classes and probation officer reporting — with little discussion about whether they can actually fulfill them. When individuals violate these rules, judges often turn to jail as a sanction.

I saw heartbreaking stories, far worse than Mill’s, firsthand when I worked as an assistant public defender in Baltimore.

I still remember a woman whose probation journey was so inconceivable, The New York Times covered the story. The nurse’s aide was required to ask a judge for permission before moving. When her apartment developed a mouse infestation, she wrote to the judge letting her know she would be moving. Presumably because she had not actually “asked” for permission, her request was denied, her probation was deemed violated, and a series of proceedings resulted in her spending more than a month in jail. The sad part is that she never ended up moving — the unit became unavailable before she could move in.

The woman had been pulled over months prior, after a party during which she’d had a bit of wine. She had no prior run-ins with the law and no points on her license. She pleaded guilty to drunken driving, but faced more than a year of probation that was filled with court appearances, fines and restrictions that hindered her ability to make a living.

For every story on probation failure that’s reported — like Mill’s and my Baltimore client’s — there are hundreds that aren’t.

Recognize life obstacles in sentencing

Judges regularly sent my clients — some of whom had no vehicle and lived miles from the nearest bus route — to jail for being late for meetings with their probation officers. I had clients who, as a condition of their probation, had to find employment. When they couldn’t get a state ID, they couldn’t get a job. Without a job, the judge sent them to jail. A judge found at least one of my clients in violation because he was homeless and didn’t have a stable address where the probation officer could visit.

Individuals are also found in violation when they can’t afford to pay the probation fees — costs paid for being supervised.

Conflicting probation conditions can also cause incarceration: Folks who work full-time jobs are asked to meet with probation officers during working hours; women ordered to distance themselves from the father of their children are given no alternatives for child-care duties; a commercial truck driver may be restricted from traveling. These conditions set individuals up for failure.

Our jails are filled with individuals like Mill who violated probation restrictions (including unreasonably long sentences) that were so prohibitive they were almost impossible to abide by.

Individualizing probation conditions doesn’t mean going soft on crime. It means being smart on crime.

Probation conditions should recognize transportation obstacles, family needs and employment schedules. When individuals are locked up on technical violations, it is society that pays in the form of tax dollars.

Technical violations are, by definition, not crimes — they are not acts of violence or affronts to public safety. There has to a better solution than incarceration.

Society would be better served if judges and probation officers worked to understand the obstacles — often built into probation conditions — that cause people to violate these restrictions in the first place. Instead of focusing purely on punishment or supervision, probation — when crafted correctly — could be seen as an opportunity, one in which individuals end up better off because of the state’s intervention.


Image credit: Arturo Holmes

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