In the last decade, Meek Mill has topped the Billboard charts, released platinum-certified albums, and established himself as one of the most popular rappers around. He’s also served stints in prison and has been on probation his entire adult life, with six years left.
Mill spoke with Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and other panelists at Variety-Rolling Stone’s Criminal Justice Reform Summit on Nov. 14 at the Hotel Jeremy in West Hollywood. Other speakers included Kim Kardashian West, CNN’s Van Jones, three state governors, Rolling Stone senior writer Jamil Smith, actress-advocate Allison Williams, and Shaka Senghor, Anti-Recidivism Coalition executive director.
Mill was arrested in 2007, when he was 19, for a crime he maintains he never committed. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to two years in prison and eight years of probation. Meek has been imprisoned “at least four times” since, most recently in 2017 for breaking probation and popping a wheelie on a dirt bike, a ruling many have criticized.
His experience with incarceration led him and Rubin to launch a foundation that aims to free a million people in the next five years. “When I found the value for myself, I wanted to make a change,” Mill said. “What about the kids like me growing up in my neighborhood who don’t have anybody to speak up for them?”
In conversation with Jones, Kardashian West talked about her advocacy this year that convinced President Trump to grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, who served more than 20 years in prison over a nonviolent drug-related offense. Kardashian West said taking on Johnson’s case and listening to stories of men and women in prison have “changed my life” and that she now reads cases as her “nighttime reading” before bed.
“I didn’t mean to have a judgmental mind going into it, but I thought, ‘OK, If anyone’s ever taken someone’s life, I don’t think I could really stand behind this,’” Kardashian West said. “I left there after sitting there for hours talking to these women and thought, ‘I am no different than them, besides a bad decision.’”
Jones, a co-founder of #cut50 reform movement, said the incarceration industry makes money off prisoners, many of whom are black and brown people unfairly convicted or given overly long sentences. He added that both conservatives and liberals should be outraged at mass incarceration, which violates the founding pillars of the United States: “Liberty and justice for all.”
While talking to Kardashian West in the afternoon, Jones broke the news onstage that Trump had endorsed the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that proposes policies like shortening mandatory minimum sentences.
Three governors across the aisle spoke about efforts they’ve taken to reduce the prison population, ranging from ending the death penalty and decriminalizing marijuana, to supporting reintegration programs. Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said increasing the prison population only drives up crime rates and costs for taxpayers, whereas prisoners who reenter society effectively can become productive members of the workforce. Also outlining the reform actions they’ve taken were Gov. Mary Fallin (R-OK) and Gov. Dannel Malloy (D-CT).
In the storytelling panel moderated by Claudia Eller, Variety’s co-editor in chief, Scott Budnick, a producer and founder of ARC, said Hollywood can move the needle regarding criminal justice reform. He cited a screening in D.C. of the documentary “The House I Live In,” which tackles the drug war, in leading to legislation that may ultimately see 6,000 people released from prison.
Behind the camera, Budnick said powerful people can also employ formerly incarcerated individuals and give them a chance to succeed. He mentioned that NBCUniversal, Disney, and Warner Bros. have all recently hired ARC members who previously served jail time.
Rudy Valdez, the filmmaker behind “The Sentence,” said the documentary was about his sister, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for non-violent crimes. He showed the film at Capitol Hill and garnered support from Republican and Democratic senators alike.
“It’s a film that takes this issue and doesn’t politicize it,” Valdez said. “This is a hearts-and-minds film … There needs to be a cultural shift, that we can no longer watch this happen and watch people profit on the backs of poor black and brown people, disenfranchised people across this country.”
Featured speaker Bernard Noble recounted how he received a more than 13-year sentence for possessing two joints of marijuana. “People in states were making a killing on marijuana while I was just sitting in jail,” Noble said. “It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I felt like I was just another man of color just burnt by the system.”
Daniel Loeb, whose Margaret & Daniel Loeb Foundation was a co-sponsor of the event, said he wanted to help Noble, even though he had never met him in the three years he worked on the case. Loeb also urged people in the room to create networks and aid one another in their activism. “We need this network, we need everyone’s energy,” he aid. “Networks are so much more powerful than hierarchies.”
A variety of criminal justice reform organizations like #cut50, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and the Justice Action Network were supporting partners of the event.