PHILADELPHIA — Perhaps it was serendipity. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Senate approved a measure that, if approved by the state House of Representatives, would revamp the state’s probation and parole program and start to repair a generation’s worth of carnage. At almost the same time Senate Bill 913 was being voted on, a group of nearly 30 kids and their families filed into the Wells Fargo Center for a day designed to highlight how abuses in the system affect children.
The families were guests of the REFORM Alliance, the criminal justice advocacy organization headed by Philadelphia native Meek Mill and Michael Rubin, a Philadelphia 76ers partner and Fanatics CEO. Meek Mill, of course, was at the center of one of the most dissected cases of prison reform in recent years. His 2017 probation violation and eventual 2018 release from prison ignited a fierce debate over the goals and methods of the parole system. The motive behind the Expensive Pain MC’s invitation to the kids and their families was twofold. On one hand, he wanted the kids to have fun. For many, it was their first professional basketball game. On the other hand, the kids were emblematic of the grave impact of mass incarceration.
Each of the kids either currently have a parent in prison stemming from a technical violation of their parole or one who was recently released. In other words, they went back to prison not for breaking the law, but for small violations of the terms of their parole. Think Meek Mill popping a wheelie on a bike in the street and being sentenced to two to four years in 2017.
The holidays are supposed to be defined by family. An incarcerated parent or sibling creates an unfillable void for an entire household. And often, kids bear the brunt of those absences. Speaking with Meek Mill shortly after getting a run in with the kids, he didn’t just empathize with their reality. He lived it.
“It feels like you’re not at the same advantage as other kids,” Meek Mill told me. “I grew up without a dad in the house. So going to basketball practice or going to school without your dad present and other kids have theirs, you don’t feel as equal. That’s why we do Christmas drives … to help kids have a good day on days like that. For the ones who can’t.”
Fourteen-year-old Dayana Reed, one of the kids in attendance, put it into perspective. “As a teenager that gets materialistic things, people expect you to always be happy,” she said. Reed’s father spent time in prison stemming from a technical violation of his parole conditions. She can’t stop smiling when talking about her first Christmas with her dad after he returned home and how they made cookies and wore pajamas all day. But she also recalled how hearing her dad apologize on the phone repeatedly about missing Christmas nearly broke her. “Teenagers go through more than what people think they go through, especially if one of your parents is incarcerated and other people don’t know how that feels. So when they tell you how to feel, it just hurts you even more.”
Toward the end of the first quarter against the Miami Heat, Sixers star center Joel Embiid stood at the free throw line. But one of the kids sitting with Meek Mill on the opposite end of the court temporarily stole the show. He bolted from his seat, ran a few steps onto the court and got Meek Mill to snap a quick picture. This was the sort of excitement the kids struggled to control throughout the day. They played an hourlong full court game with Meek Mill, Lil Baby and Rubin equipped with an announcer, DJ and shot clock.
“I like your jump shot,” Robert Rooks, REFORM’s CEO, told one kid from courtside.
“You haven’t seen my layup!” the kid shot back and quickly ran off in search of his next bucket.
They participated in a “news conference” with Sixers head coach Doc Rivers about 90 minutes before tipoff. And, yes, one kid asked about Ben Simmons. Throughout the game, kids rotated from courtside to suite.
Except for one white girl, all of the kids were Black. And every one of them had a story about family trauma.
Like Zaid Duncan, an 8-year-old who loves football and loves that his dad coaches his team even more. His father, Rickey Duncan, has served as executive director and CEO of NOMO Philly, a community-based anti-violence group. Duncan was released from prison seven years ago and completed all the supervision terms in 2018 — but served time for four parole violations, including one for changing his address without notifying his parole officer, resulting in a six-month sentence and loss of his job.
Or Megan Ross, whose 2013 drug conviction led to a two-year probation sentence. She was accused of “absconding” after missing meetings with her probation officer, which resulted in two years in prison and an additional nine years of probation following a relapse in 2016. Though she’s been clean since 2017 and works in outreach programs to help others fight addiction, it wasn’t until this past weekend that she was able to confess to her 9-year-old daughter Lily about why they were separated.
Then there’s Recco Ford Sr. who was sentenced to two years in prison and five additional years of probation following a felony gun violation in 2012. After returning home, he was sentenced to two to four years and five additional years of probation after missing a visit to his parole officer. Ford Sr. now owns two businesses, an organic candle company and moving company, but he understands what his time in the system has meant for his kids, in particular his oldest son, Recco Jr.
“He’s been through more than most other 9-year-olds,” he said.
“I didn’t think it happened, to be honest,” Rubin told The Undefeated about his initial impressions of how the probation system functioned. Thanks to his stature as a wealthy white man in America, he just couldn’t believe that minor technicalities led to lengthy prison terms. “Meek would be like, ‘I gotta go to prison for 90 days.’ And I’d be like ‘For what?’ ‘I used a water pistol in a music video.’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t believe you, man.’ ”
It wasn’t until he saw Meek Mill get sentenced in 2017 that he stopped looking at the criminal justice system through rose-tinted glasses. “Today, I understand it fully. It’s an issue I didn’t believe was possible four, five years ago and now it’s a normal day. Our job is to take what happened to Meek — take what happened to these kids’ parents — and fix the underlying problem.”
REFORM turns 3 years old next month. In that time, the organization has helped pass 13 bills in eight states — including a major win in April in Virginia that will greatly reduce the state’s probation population and allow for men and women to return to society with an opportunity for a better life for their families and safer communities. With approximately 4.4 million Americans on either probation or parole according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the organization’s work has helped create avenues for a half million people to leave the system — or roughly 10% of the total.
Asked if REFORM was working specifically on the cases of the parents in particular whose kids were running around the Wells Fargo Center, Rubin’s answer was simple. But it came with a purpose. There are people who should be in prison, he reasons, and should be on parole. But not everyone falls in that same category. So why paint everyone with the same broad brush?
“If we went case by case, it would be impossible to fix the problem. The way you fix the problem is you change the laws,” Rubin said. “You shouldn’t have a law that allows somebody that if they don’t change their address — or if they smoke weed — they can get sent to prison for two to four years. That’s what we’re working on. Fixing the underlying laws.”
Which is why Senate Bill 913 hovered over the day in Wells Fargo Center like the retired numbers of Sixers icons Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson. Currently, Pennsylvania has more than 180,000 men and women under supervision. “A pipeline to incarceration,” is what an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called it in March.
“It hamstrings people. It keeps people from working and providing for their families. The legislation [we’re backing] before the Pennsylvania legislature addresses those issues,” Rooks said. “We also provide a definition of ‘technical violation’ that guides the courts on when you can violate someone instead of a blanket rule that it is today. And we also create an earned credit system for people to get off probation within three years or five years. It impacts the limitless probation that some people find themselves in.”
As fans pour into the Wells Fargo Center for the game, Meek Mill speaks to the kids and their parents at a private dinner in a suite. Floor to wall windows overlook the city’s streets filled with a plethora of brake lights from cars trying to get into and around the arena. The line to the food begins to stretch giving kids more than enough time to laugh and joke with each other. Or for one young kid, the opportunity to quiz Lil Baby about his real estate portfolio.
“Do you own an island?” she asks.
“Nah,” Lil Baby says, unable to control his laughter at the question. “But I’m trying to get one though.”
Her eyes light up at the possibility. Such was the theme of the day. With the passing of Senate Bill 913, there was a hope that maybe, just maybe, this cycle of despair and the fracturing of Black families can begin to be eradicated. Emphasis on begin. Even more emphasis on maybe. Meek Mill understands that one bill won’t undo years of systematic issues and ingrained racism that all but crippled much of his adult life until a few years ago.
Wednesday’s event is one of several holiday-related efforts he’s leading. On Sunday, he and his team plan to hand out $500,000 worth of gifts to Philly families, including video games, laptops, tablets and bikes. And he’s set to make $30,000 donation to his hometown chapter of “12 Days of Christmas.” In a 2012 interview while buying gifts for local kids, Meek Mill said he didn’t believe in Santa Claus. He did, though, believe in making Philadelphia kids smile. They deal with so much at a young age, he reasoned, that they deserve to smile.
Nowadays, part of that smile is doing his part to make sure their parents don’t miss another Christmas. That’s part of what the smile on his face represents in the celebrity basketball game with the kids.
“I actually was a Philly kid, you know?” he told me. “I come from the streets and a lot of these kids come from my same type of background. It feels really good to be here and be able to put a smile on their faces. And being present with them, most importantly. I know what that means. That’s why I participate to the fullest.”