Rap and hip-hop die hards took to the streets of Philadelphia last week to protest the prison sentence handed down to hip-hop artist Robert Williams, known to his fans as Meek Mill. While out of prison on probation, Meek Mill failed a urine test, and the judge overseeing his case sentenced him to 2-4 years in jail as a result, a penalty that many have seen as egregiously over the top.
This isn’t Meek’s first run-in with the criminal justice system, and his probation comes as a part of a conviction he received in 2008 for gun and drug possession charges. Having experienced the loss of his father to street violence in his home city of Philadelphia, the odds have been stacked against the 30-year-old rapper for some time. After serving 8 months for the possession charges, Meek was released on probation, and has already been brought to court twice for violations of the conditions of his parole. In both cases, the charges were dismissed in exchange for community service.
However, with his recently failed drug test being the third strike against his probation, Judge Genece Brinkley, who has overseen the rapper’s case from it’s beginning, expressed her frustration and exasperation with the apparent disregard Meek has demonstrated for the leniency and many chances the courts have given him. As a result, she felt that the arguably-excessive jail time she doled out was appropriate.
Public opinion has been all over the place on this one. Some say that Meek and the people close to him should have been more careful to observe the conditions of his release from prison, given that he was let out early. Many have expressed sympathy saying that, despite his transgressions, the punishment Judge Brinkley assigned was over the top. Jay-Z, T.I., and other prominent names in the industry have penned public letters in support of a reduced or voided prison sentence. Others have criticized the role that Meek’s networth has played in his ongoing run-ins with the criminal justice system, saying that someone of his wealth and stature continues to get off scot-free because he can buy his way out of trouble.
Regardless of anyone’s personal opinion, his sentence has sparked national discourse around the purpose of probation and the implicit biases a judge brings to a sentencing hearing. Meek’s lawyer Joe Tacopina has publicly accused Judge Brinkley of having acted on strong feelings about Meek as a celebrity. She has appeared at his community service activities and has commented on his contract with RocNation, Jay-Z’s recording label. The FBI is reportedly looking into the issue to see if extraneous details influenced her rulings.
Issues of judicial bias have long been a sore spot in the criminal justice system, and although many have called on artificial intelligence to remedy the issue, there has been no silver bullet. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in sentencing hearings and immigration hearings. Reuters recently published interviews with two women with nearly indistinguishable stories of why they’re seeking asylum in the US, but one was permitted entry and one was not. The judge a person gets, the time of day that person gets said judge, and the number of admissions the judge made prior to a particular hearing all have statistically significant impacts on the likelihood of a case’s outcome. Ideally, each case should be evaluated individually on its own merits, but the data demonstrates that this is far from the truth.
Our criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with the human errors that are bound to occur. It’s unlikely that any judge can be fully immune from the influence of the world, but incidents such as Meek Mill’s hearings thrust the talking point into the public sphere.