What Arizona Could Learn From Meek Mill's Prison Reform Campaign

Meek Mill returns to Phoenix in his first full tour since being released from prison.
Meek Mill returns to Phoenix in his first full tour since being released from prison. Amadeus McCaskill / Miami New Times
Meek Mill is not an activist. In his own words, he’s simply “a guy who likes to make music.” He’s a father and a businessman. He’s a philanthropist dedicated to improving the community he grew up in. Admittedly, he’s got a few chart topping albums to his credit, but before any of this, Robert Rihmeek Williams is just a man.

Like every man, he was once a teenager, one who made some questionable judgment calls. The Philadelphia native was caught with a gun and beaten by police officers, arrested, and jailed on trumped-up weapons charges in 2008. For over a decade, Williams has been shuffled back and forth between varying phases of the criminal justice system, stuck in an endless feedback loop of incarceration and probation. His rap career developed in parallel, and despite his behavioral improvement, which the Pennsylvania District Attorney personally endorsed, he was sentenced to up to four years in state prison in 2017 over a minor traffic violation.

The sentencing forced the United States to confront one of our deepest societal stigmas: our irreparably broken criminal justice system, for which both taxpayers and the incarcerated are paying a very high price.

After his release earlier this year, Meek Mill and his story have become the unwitting face of change. The rapper has become the de facto face of the prison reform movement. He’s gone on CNN and The Daily Show to discuss his time in the system. He’s written an op-ed for the New York Times calling for “a new set of rights” for prisoners.

“I know I’m the exception to the rule — a lucky one,” he wrote. “It’s clearer than ever that a disproportionate number of men and women of color are treated unfairly by a broken criminal justice system. The system causes a vicious cycle, feeding upon itself — sons and daughters grow up with their parents in and out of prison, and then become far more likely to become tied up in the arrest-jail-probation cycle.”

When he comes to play Comerica Theatre on Tuesday, February 26, he’ll just be the guy who likes to make music. He’ll undoubtedly bring the energy to his live shows that put his music on the map. Those familiar with his hits can bet on bangers like the Drake-featuring “Going Bad” to make an appearance, alongside a few older singles from his Maybach Music days. True fans are looking for the critically acclaimed “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” to be featured in his set. Performing songs off of his latest album, 2018’s Championships, will only add a layer of much-needed cultural perspective to his old content. It’s the messages in this new music, alongside his continued calls for criminal justice reform, that even Arizonans need to hear.

Arizona has the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the U.S., according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. When statistics from Maricopa County were compared to stats from Miami-Dade County, which has similar population demographics and a similar crime rate, it was found that, on average, Maricopa County imprisons six times more people. Additionally, while Miami-Dade County has reduced admission into state prisons by 44 percent since 2016, admission to Maricopa County prisons have actually risen by 33 percent.
Arizona is falling behind when comes to criminal justice reform. Before the introduction of HB 2270, or the Just Sentencing Act, to lawmakers just last month, very little formal legislation on criminal justice or prison reform had been proposed in the state in the last decade. The bill is aimed at curbing Arizona’s prison population by reducing recidivism (the rate at which convicts return to prison).

If this bill passes, it wouldn’t only benefit rehabilitated citizens — a burden would be lifted off taxpayers. In 2015, a study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost of housing one single inmate in an Arizona state prison was more than $25,000 a year. The Just Sentencing Act aims to reduce recidivism by pushing incentives for rehabilitation, which could potentially save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite these savings, there’s still pushback from politicians who are stuck in the “tough on crime” policies of the early ’90s, which decimated communities and disproportionately affected men from all walks of life.

The greatest part of Meek Mill’s story is his optimism. It’s evident that despite having a record, he is doing what he can to live his best life. Today, he displays his mistakes on his sleeve and pours his transgressions into his music. He is using his story as a teachable moment for America to see, a moment Arizonans should pay keen attention to. His music comes from an eye-opening place of authenticity. His growth from ill-advised teenager, to a chart-topping artist hoping for societal change, is admirable. Perhaps it’s time we follow his example.

Meek Mill. With Lil Durk and Kash Doll. 8 p.m. Tuesday, February 26, at Comerica Theatre, 400 West Washington Street; 602-379-2800; comericatheatre.com. Tickets are $33 to $83 via Live Nation.
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