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Robert F. Smith and REFORM Alliance: Working Toward Systematic Change

In 2017, rapper Meek Mill was arrested by the New York Police Department (NYPD) on a felony count of reckless endangerment for popping wheelies on a dirt bike in the street without wearing a helmet. Officers didn’t arrest Mill at the time of the infraction, but instead, they used an Instagram Live video posted by the rapper’s friend as grounds to take him into custody a day later.

While the reckless endangerment charges were eventually dismissed, Judge Genece Brinkley — who had sentenced Mill to probation in 2008, which extended through 2017 — chose to charge him with breaking probation and kept him from traveling.

That decision, coupled with Mill’s eventual sentencing of 2-4 years in jail for breaking probation some months later, would create a groundswell of national support for the rapper.

Mill’s supporters and their outspoken calls for change eventually led to the creation of the REFORM Alliance in 2019. Spearheaded by Mill, the organization is supported by a group of founding partners including philanthropist and social justice activist Robert F. Smith.

Breaking the Probation and Parole to Prison Pipeline

Stemming from Mill’s experience, REFORM Alliance aims to create change in the criminal justice system through a specific focus on probation and parole.

The systemic issue of unjust probation and parole laws go way beyond Mill’s case. According to a 2019 report by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, “45% of state prison admissions nationwide are due to violations of probation or parole for new offenses or technical violations. On any given day, 280,000 people are in prison — nearly 1 in 4 — as a result of a supervision violation.”

The cost of this imprisonment and re-imprisonment cycle is massive and has a tremendous impact on everyone, from those involved in the criminal justice system to the average taxpayer. A report published in 2021 by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, it was found that New York’s state and local governments spent $683 million to incarcerate people on parole for rules violations and that’s just the cost in one state.

Since its creation, REFORM Alliance has pushed for legislation that encourages the implementation of programs that create inroads to jobs and promote stability for formerly incarcerated individuals. Transitioning from a system of supervision to one that reintegrates people into society will pay dividends to taxpayers and their communities alike.

To date, REFORM Alliance has had success passing numerous pieces of legislation nationwide. Below are a few of its most notable victories.

Bill AB 1950, California

AB 1950 was one of three bills that REFORM Alliance was able to get passed with bipartisan support in 2020 in California. The bill, according to REFORM Alliance, creates a cap for most instances of misdemeanor probation to one year and felony to two.

As a result of these limits California is projected to save over $2 billion and reduce its probation population by 33%, according to Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager.

The Less is More Act, New York

Through a partnership between REFORM Alliance and New Yorkers United for Justice, The Less is More Act was passed in New York in 2021, making most technical violations of parole not punishable by incarceration, and putting a cap of 30 days incarceration for any technical violations that still qualify.

After being signed into law, the act immediately resulted in the release of almost 200 people from Rikers Island, the main jail for New York City.

Robert F. Smith, An Advocate for Change

Smith joined REFORM Alliance in 2019 as a Founding Partner and contributed $5 million to further the organization’s efforts. Smith has been recognized by the National Action Network (NAN) as an honoree at NAN’s Keepers of the Dream awards and as a civil rights leader at NAN’s 2018 Annual National Convention for his commitment to advancing social justice.

Learn more about the social justice focused organizations Smith has worked with as well as others focused on healthcare, education and more.