“If you’re forced to fall or if you fell, you should be able to get up regardless and move forward in life.”
Those were the words from the ubiquitous DJ Khaled, who was on hand at the NBA Store in New York City Saturday morning (December 21) along with the REFORM Alliance founding members Michael Rubin, Meek Mill, and Clara Wu Tsai.
Rubin and the REFORM Alliance leadership, along with Khaled and Brooklyn Nets’ star Caris LeVert, were part of a delegation spreading holiday cheer for several dozen children who have been adversely affected by an unjust probation system.
The REFORM Alliance started with the unjust re-imprisonment of Meek Mill due to minor technical probation violations. At the time, the Philly rapper received a startling two-to-four year sentence. The shocking sentence started the international #FreeMeek movement, which led to his release on bail in April 2018.
Being a high profile celebrity with power and powerful friends, Meek was able to fight and win his case. Coming from humble beginnings he knew that wasn’t the reality for almost everyone else caught up in an unjust criminal justice system.
Together with Rubin, who is also a Philadelphia 76ers Partner, Meek wanted to do more, and became committed to changing mass supervision laws (probation and parole policies).
The REFORM Alliance boasts some of the biggest leaders and names in business, government, entertainment, sports, technology, art, and culture. Including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and hip hop mogul Jay-Z.
But Saturday wasn’t about celebrity status, it was about making kids smile and bringing some joy to their lives during this holiday season.
Children who currently have a parent in prison or on parole for a technicality, or who previously had a parent in the probation and parole system were brought in from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for the event.
According to the event organizers, a single child was given a gift card of $500. A family received a gift card of $1,000, and larger families received a higher amount. These gift cards could be used to purchase anything in the NBA’s flagship consumer store.
Throughout the morning kids and parents alike were buzzing with excitement deciding which jersey of their favorite NBA superstar to purchase or team paraphernalia. It was an early Christmas for these families in need.
Following the shopping spree at the NBA Store, the kids and their families were flown up to Gillette Stadium on the New England Patriots team plane to meet Kraft, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and watch the game against the Buffalo Bills that evening.
“We want to make a really special day for all of you,” Rubin said in his remarks that began the day. “We want you to have a great time. Have a shopping spree. Enjoy meeting everyone. Get a chance to fly on the Patriots team plane, and meet Robert Kraft. See a Patriots game and spend some time on the field.”
The probation and parole laws obviously impact the parolee and person on probation, but it has an undue burden on their families as well. Not only financially, but emotionally.
“I watched Meek go through the holiday season without his family when he was locked up. It was awful for him to live through and it was awful for me to watch,” Rubin told BET.
“We want to make sure that all these kids that are here that have parents that are currently incarcerated or previously incarcerated for technical violations. Again, they didn’t commit a crime. We want to make sure we give them one of the best days of their lives,” Rubin added.
For Meek, the man who spurred a revolution, it was a surreal moment. As he was about to take the microphone from Rubin and address the attendees, a kid said, “Meek Mill, you are my rap idol!”
BET asked Meek, what it meant to hear those words from a child.
“It’s a blessing to have a little kid from where I come from say he looks up to me and what I stand for,” he explained.
Meek and Rubin seem like an unlikely pair of friends, but their friendship is born from a genuine curiosity both men share. Through their friendship, hours of conversation and debate, Rubin finally came to understand the concept of “two Americas”.
“Today, was Mike’s idea,” Meek said. “I inform Mike of everything from ‘the other side of America.’ What we go through, and things I went through coming up and my upbringing.”
It was an especially busy, but rewarding day for Meek as he pulled double duty. Hanging with the kids at the NBA Store for the REFORM Alliance, and then immediately whisking down to his hometown of Philadelphia where he hosted a toy giveaway a few hours later.
For the REFORM Alliance, Saturday’s event with the kids and their families was a highlight in the painstaking marathon of enacting change to an archaic and racist criminal justice system. After the kids and their families enjoy this day, the work continues.
“Right now in Pennsylvania we have a House Bill and Senate Bill we hope to get done by the end of January (2020),” Rubin said. “That will change thousands of lives and hundreds of thousands of peoples’ families’ lives...we want to fix the overall problem.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 6.6 million people are currently in the criminal justice system in the United States and 4.5 million of those are currently on parole or probation. As a nation, the United States spends more than $80 billion dollars annually on corrections, more than any other country by a wide margin.
So often when looking at fixing the injustices and problems that exist within a society, cosmetic fixes are usually the end result. Changing systems and infrastructures is intensive and quite frankly, met with resistance.
But it appears that REFORM is in it for the long term. Founding member Clara Wu Tsai, wife of billionaire businessman and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, sees the challenge in making change but knows it can be done.
“I’ve been interested in economic mobility for most of my life,” Tsai told BET. “We can’t talk about economic mobility without talking about criminal justice reform. It’s a long-term game. It’s trying to change laws and policy. We know that’s not easy. So at the same time we are also trying to change the narrative. We are trying to change hearts and minds, so that people are aware of these issues and that’s partly why we are doing this today. We want more people to know about the injustices, especially around imprisonment for technical, non-criminal violations.”
Those words undoubtedly resonated with the families in attendance.
A man who identified himself to BET as James White of Newark, New Jersey was at the event with two of his children and he recanted a story of how he was caught up in the system.
White told BET he was on probation for a year on a drug possession charge. He received a letter in the mail saying he violated his probation and he was due to appear in court. Not believing it was anything serious he opted not to wear a suit, and showed up to court in an Edgerrin James (retired NFL player) throwback jersey.
The presiding judge told White he failed to pay a fine. White said, “I thought I paid all my fines. But I have the money now and can pay.”
According to White the judge said, “I see you are wearing a jersey. Those are pretty expensive. I can tell that you have money because of what you’re wearing. But I don’t want your money. I want your time..” The judge gave White another year of probation and doubled the fine.
In this instance White was one of the lucky ones and he knows it.
“In that situation I was more fortunate than a lot of other people,” he said. “A lot of people get sent to prison to finish their parole.”
“It’s not just the judges or probation system. It’s the continuous harassment. It’s the system itself that allows for harassment and racism. Because I’ll be honest, I did run into a judge that was fair. But they only exist in the cracks,” White concluded.
The REFORM Alliance and its members through their efforts believe that as a collective they can enact true change at the policy level, and end the revolving door that is probation and parole.
If only for a brief moment, the joy experienced by the kids on Saturday is a reminder of why this fight is so necessary and ultimately worth it.
(Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Diamond Ball)
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