Free Meek Mill

The rapper Meek Mill has just been sentenced to two to four years in prison because a judge decided he had violated his parole and was "thumbing [his] nose at the court." The sentence, made possible by a 10-year-old probation status, illustrates the need not just for sentencing reform but for a reckoning with overcriminalization and the aggressive enforcement of petty laws.

Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in 2008 after being convicted on drug and gun possession charges and was released in early 2009 with a five-year probation order. That was extended another five years because Mill, horror of horrors, left the state of Pennsylvania to perform at shows.

Drug and gun charges are often seen in tandem, because drug prohibition means those involved in the trade don't have access to a legal dispute-resolution system, forcing them to rely on their ability to defend themselves. These gun enhancements lead to higher rates of incarceration, particularly within marginalized communities, and all the evidence suggests that a crackdown on guns would mirror the destructive and ineffective war on drugs. Nonetheless, gun control advocates keep pushing for that crackdown.

It is thanks to such laws that people like Mill, never accused of a violent crime, end up under state supervision for long periods of time. That in turn makes them more vulnerable to a bevy of other capricious laws.

In Mill's case, he was charged with a misdemeanor after getting into an altercation with a photographer in St. Louis who was trying to take a picture of him, and he was charged with reckless driving for illegally riding his dirt bike while shooting a music video in Manhattan. Both arrests happened this year.

The first charge was dropped. In the New York City case, Mill accepted a dismissal deal that saw him do 30 hours of community service and not be required to admit guilt. Despite that, he's going to jail.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio claims to be a supporter of criminal justice reform, yet he insists that petty laws be aggressively enforced. While this is especially likely to entangle the poor, who can't afford hefty fines for essentially harmless behavior, it can impact anyone, particularly in conjunction with prior offenses or other legal problems.

One of Mill's lawyers claims that the judge in the case, Genece Brinkley, has acted vindictively and inappropriately, giving Mill advice on who his manager should be and asking him to remake the Boyz II Men song "On Bended Knee" and shout her out in it. Brinkley has been involved with Meek's troubles since he first caught the convictions for drug and gun possession. Such longevity increases the opportunity for inappropriate behavior because of the sense of familiarity it breeds. It also leaves offenders largely at the whim of just one individual.

Mill's case has galvanized activists and protesters. Jay-Z, whose label Roc Nation signed Mill, blasted the court system at a show in Dallas, while demonstrators held a "Free Meek Mill" rally in Philadelphia, where they also called on Brinkley to recuse herself.

Preventing such miscarriages in the future will require us to question a vast pile of petty laws that fuel an industry—of judges, cops, probation officers, others—whose primary goal often seems to be its own perpetuation.