Billboard topping rap artists Jay-Z and Meek Mill teamed up to announce the launch of the Reform Alliance, an organization devoted to criminal justice reform. The initial backers of the initiative, who come from a wide range of fields, have ponied up $50 million to get the work started.
Besides Jay-Z and Meek Mill, a group of all-star funders from the worlds of sports, business, and tech include are also partners on this venture including: Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai; Third Point LLC CEO/founder Daniel S. Loeb; Galaxy Digital CEO/founder Michael E. Novogratz; and Vista Equity Partners CEO/founder Robert F. Smith.
This diverse and wealthy group of civic minded individuals not only pooled together their resources for this cause, but also selected Van Jones as the founding CEO of the Reform Alliance. Jones, a former White House advisor during the Obama administration, has years of experience in the social justice space as the founder of several organizations with various goals such as teaching children from under-resourced communities how to code and helping people impacted by unjust parole and probation policies.
At the launch event for the Reform Alliance at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, Meek Mill explained to a packed theater why he is committed to this organization.
“Creating the Reform Alliance is one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. If you thought my case was unfair, there are millions of others dealing with worse situations and caught up in the system without committing crimes. With this alliance, we want to change outdated laws, give people hope and reform a system that’s stacked against us.”
The Philadelphia native’s interactions with the law over the past few years sparked the #FreeMeekMill hashtag. The 31-year-old has been in the criminal justice system since he was 18, shuttling in and out of jail on various parole violations that were acquired after he was given a lengthy 10-year probation sentence as a teen.
Many have argued that the restrictive probation rules and the length of the probation sentence handed down to Mill were unfair and that the violations handed down by Judge Genece Brinkley were unjust. Even Mill’s initial arrest over a decade ago that sparked this domino effect was found to be predicated on a lie.
As Mill stated, the only thing separating him from the 4.5 million other Americans currently on probation or parole is his celebrity status. He has the money, resources, and platforms to bring attention to the larger issue and that is where the Reform Alliance comes into play.
Not Reinventing the Wheel
Van Jones envisions the Reform Alliance as an amplifier, not a replacement, for the work countless grassroots organizations have tirelessly done for decades.
“We are looking for deep alignment and partnership with groups who are out there on the front lines. We can be side by side and get something done in this space,” said Jones. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We are here to accelerate the wheel that has already been built by grassroots people and that’s what the Reform Alliance is all about.”
“I’m from Marcy Projects, I’m from Brooklyn. This has been a part of my life,” said Jay-Z. “This is communities we grew up in, friends I have, people around me. I grew up with this issue. We have to applaud him because every setback he had, he came back stronger and that takes a really dedicated person. We’re all prisoners to this. Until everyone’s free, no one is free.”
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots who got to know Meek Mill while Mill was incarcerated, explained how even just from a purely economic standpoint, the rapper’s situation made no sense.
“Taxpayers are paying to keep [Mill] going [to jail], and he’s not employing all the people he could employ and generating all the tax dollars he could,” Kraft said. “It’s a cuckoo system even forgetting the social impact it has.”
The NFL has been at odds with activists players like Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid who protest against police violence in the Black community by kneeling during the national anthem.
Beyond Meek Mill
Meek Mill, who had to get permission to attend the New York City event because he is still on probation until 2023, was not the only person in attendance who had been directly impacted by the criminal justice system.
At the opening of the event, men, women and even some children were featured in recorded interviews and also in person Topeka K. Sam, who, with support from her family and legal experts, got herself successfully removed from federal supervision, led their conversation. She now works to help those impacted by incarceration.
“We don’t speak about the people, who are being sentenced to lengthy terms of post-incarceration and probation and are then subjected to arbitrary harassment, which leads to violations, then prison, then parole, then probation, then prison again,” said Sam. “It’s an ongoing cycle that ends today.”
Sam went on to note that women are often overlooked in the conversation about criminal justice reform.
“Women are being incarcerated at rate 800% greater than our male counterparts and 85% of us are survivors of sexual violence and trauma,” she shared. “Also, 80% of all women who go to prison are mothers. We can not forget about women in this conversation and the impact the system has on women and our children.”
Before handing over the event to singer Victory Boyd to close the launch, Jones reminded the crowd that the Reform Alliance will strive for the ambitious goal of getting 1 million people out of the probation and parole system by “fighting different.”
“We’re going to focus on the two-thirds who are caught up on probation and parole. That is a revolving door. There are tricks and traps instead of help and support. We’re going to dismantle that revolving door. We’re gonna fight different,” Jones said. “When you take the most powerful stories and combine them with the most powerful story telling platforms on Earth, you’re gonna get change. We’re gonna fight different.”