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Meek Mill and America’s parole system

Earl O. Hutchinson

Hip hop artist Meek Mill did more than rouse the anger of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Rap Mogul Jay-Z. Both have loudly spoken out against Mill being plopped back in prison for violations of parole stemming from a 2007 conviction for gun possession. He was sent back to jail following an arrest for an altercation in which charges were dropped and an arrest after he was seen performing dirt bike stunts in Manhattan. Mill’s two-to-four-year sentence for his parole violations cast the ugly glare back on a part of the criminal justice system that has been too often ignored, overlooked or not even seen: the blatantly racially biased parole system.

Mill’s defenders point the damning finger at the seeming injustice of his being slapped back in prison for a long stretch for relatively minor parole violations by what they call a biased female judge with an ax to grind against him. The he said, she said debate over what he or she did to wind up behind bars is not the real issue. The issue is that before he was sent back to prison he was one of millions of black men who were under the iron thumb of the parole system.

The racial disparities between blacks and whites on parole are staggering. Blacks make up more than 40 percent of all parolees in the country. In some states, the percent and number of blacks on parole is far higher. They are more likely to be on parole than whites, stay on parole for a longer time and this is where the Mills case and the plight of other black parolees are a crisis issue. They are far more likely than whites to be plopped back in prison for violations. The violations are often arbitrary, voluminous, and can be petty. The loud message that parole sends is that the parolee is completely under the control of a parole officer or agency, and his every action is being closely watched and monitored.

The upside for defenders of a tight, overbearing parole system is that this is the best way to ensure that ex-felons, especially violent ex-felons do not commit crimes again and menace society. This part makes sense. What doesn’t is that a huge number of those on parole are not violent offenders, career criminals, or pose a recidivist threat. They are low level drug offenders or were convicted of petty crimes. Studies have repeatedly shown that providing these individuals with job training and drug counseling programs are a far more cost-effective way to insure they do not repeat their crimes.

Then there is the widespread notion that parolees are sent back to prison because they have committed new crimes. This is not true. A parolee is more likely to be returned to prison for any number of technical violations of their parole, which could include something as seemingly petty as being late for or missing appointments with the parole officer. In Mill’s case, the violations cited were a dispute with a fan, and a dispute over a motorbike on a street during a music video shoot. The decision to send Mill back was made by a judge. However, in most cases the decision to shuttle a parolee back to prison is made by a supervising parole officer and that decision can be at the whim of the officer.

The parole back to-prison pipeline has wreaked massive social and political havoc on families and communities. It has been a factor in the bloat in federal and state spending on prison construction, maintenance, and the escalation in the number of prosecutors needed to handle the continuing flood of criminal cases.

The stock reason for criminalizing a huge segment of a generation of young blacks is that they are crime-prone and lack family values. But reports and studies by the Justice Department, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as well as universities and foundations confirm that broken homes and bad genes have little to do with crime rates. High joblessness, failing public schools, budget cutbacks in skills training and placement programs, the refusal of employers to hire those with criminal records, and the gaping racial disparity in the drug sentencing laws are the major reasons why far more blacks than whites are behind bars.

Mill is again one of them. The figures amply show that a broken parole system has put legions more back in jail cells. The consolation is that Mill cast the ugly glare on this.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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