There are about four million people on probation or parole in the United States, but every five and half minutes, one of those people is sent back to prison for technical violations. In 2017, rapper Meek Mill, whose real name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, became the face of one of the most high-profile cases of technical parole violations when he was arrested after popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in New York City. The #FreeMeek movement became a cultural phenomenon backed by industry heavy-hitters.
In 2019, the recording artist joined together with a group of philanthropists and activists to create REFORM Alliance, a nonprofit organization that challenges systemic incarceration practices including probation and parole, which they see as a revolving door back to prison. Since its inception, the organization has been responsible for effectively advocating on behalf of formerly incarcerated people, lobbying for the passage of legislation such as California’s AB1950, CARES Act and First Step Act among others.
It takes a village
In partnership with Williams, other founders and partners include Philadelphia 76ers partner and Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin; Arnold Ventures co-founder Laura Arnold; entrepreneur and business mogul Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter; Kraft Group CEO and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; Galaxy Digital CEO and founder Michael E. Novogratz; Vista Equity Partners founder, chairman, and CEO Robert F. Smith; Brooklyn Nets co-owner and philanthropic investor Clara Wu Tsai; initiative co-founder Chan Zuckerberg and co-CEO Priscilla Chan; and CNN host and activist Van Jones. Robert Rooks, a veteran criminal justice advocate, serves as the CEO.
With more than two decades of policy and legislative advocacy under his belt, Rooks has helped to secure landmark reform including incarceration reduction work in Illinois, California, Florida, Michigan, Texas, and Ohio. REFORM Alliance allows him to continue his advocacy efforts.
The CEO said the #FreeMeek movement paved a path to share their way to effective reforms.
“Well, the truth of the matter is that Meek shed light on the fact that there are millions of people dealing with this,” Rooks told Blavity. “And so what Meek allowed us to do was to use his story to tell a story of others and then those other stories started to show up and individuals started becoming empowered to share their experiences on probation and the challenges that they have.”
Rooks fancies the approach of centering the narratives of crime survivors, and survivor is the operative word for this organization because it sets the landscape for the work.
“The survivors themselves did not want to use the word victim,” Rooks said. “They said, ‘we’re not gonna be defined by what happened to us; we’re actually going to shape the next phase of our lives through our healing journey.’ And that was something that once you heard folks articulate, it just made total sense. And, the word victim is one that has so many different connotations that people weren’t willing or wanting to associate with, but they all wanted to associate with survivors.”
Joined by these survivors, this group of activists and philanthropists make systemic change.
Politicize the generation
According to the organization’s website, REFORM Alliance aims to transform probation and parole by changing laws, systems and culture to create real pathways to work and wellbeing.
“We’re giving people an opportunity to engage in activism, to call their legislator, share their story and hold people accountable,” Rooks said. “You won’t get my vote if you’re going to not vote for this piece of legislation. So, these are individuals that started off on probation where the system was guiding, controlling their lives. And we’re now turning that into individuals to be activists to be able to control government. So that’s our hope. We need to politicize the generation to make the change that we want.”
Rooks’ own upbringing has helped him garner a more full understanding of this concept.
“I grew up in Dallas, Texas, in the ‘80s and ‘90s where I saw my thriving community fall apart as a result of the influx of the crack cocaine epidemic,” Rooks said. “It impacted my family, my friends, our home, and it was those experiences that shaped my life. I made a commitment to myself that I will work to ensure that the next generation does not experience what I was experiencing. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. And so I’ve been working to not just talk about criminal justice reform, but talk about what does it look like to address the root cause of public safety? ‘Cause if we did that, then I don’t think we would need to have a criminal justice system in a way that we have it.”
From his experiences personally and through his decades of work, Rooks said the main thing all communities seem to want is to work together to create safer spaces – crime victims and survivors alike.
“Crime victims have diverse views and unfortunately legislators across the country were listening to one group of victims and not listening to another group of victims and the folks that they were not listening to were Black, brown, poor victims,” he said. “What we learned was crime victims wanted three things, they wanted what happened to them not to happen again and wanted what happened to them not to happen to someone else. And they want real help and healing for their communities. Did they say, we want to throw people in prison and throw away the key? They didn’t say that right? Because crime survivors know that in many parts of the country, crime victims and people that committed harm are in the same community, are in the same family and sometimes within the same person.”
REFORM has made significant strides
In the short time since its inception, REFORM Alliance has made significant strides and legislative success in California, Michigan, Georgia, New York, Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey. The organization has passed 13 bills across those states helping half a million people come off of probation and parole. Specifically, in Louisiana REFORM provided support for the passage of HB643 which is the first in the country to allow remote reporting for people on probation. In Mississippi, the organization worked on SB2795 which seeks to reduce the state’s high imprisonment rate. And in Virginia, REFORM joined a bipartisan coalition to pass HB2038 which reduces jail and probation times, creating tax savings and a better economy.
“We work at the state level to transform systems and ensure that probation and parole systems are a pathway to stability and support,” Rooks said. “We’ve passed laws in states across the country mainly to cap probation sentences. There’s no reason for someone to be on probation for more than two years. We were able to pass that law in California, for example, where misdemeanor probation had to stay on for one year; felony probation for two. That gives people an opportunity to transition successfully into their lives, into their communities and be able to work. We’re excited that California was able to do that – 170,000 people in the next five years would benefit from the California law. We’re excited about the momentum we’re building. We’re winning in red states, blue states, purple states. Why? Because this issue is important to Americans.”
There is hope after a conviction
Marcella Soto was sentenced to five years probation for felony welfare fraud in San Bernardino, California, in 2019. It severely hindered her opportunities at work and nearly snatched her chances of seeing the birth of her first grandson. After serving two years on probation, she happened to see REFORM’s work to pass AB1950, a piece of legislation that limits most felony probation to two years. Her probation was terminated in Dec. 2021, credit to REFORM Alliance’s efforts.
Soto had no prior legal troubles but was living with extreme fear that she would become incarcerated for the tiniest of infractions.
“The experience with probation and the fear I had was always not even that I was out doing anything bad – I just was always worried about like, if I was gonna get pulled over, you know, whether it be for speeding or maybe a light bulb, I was always scared because I felt like the officer or whoever pulled me over, I felt like I was gonna be judged because I was a felon on probation,” Soto told Blavity. “I was always worried about getting in trouble.”
During her probation, Soto maintained full-time employment even garnering a promotion. She volunteered outside of her mandatory 100 community service hours, yet just being on probation had her living in fear.
“I remember I went to court by myself in the morning and the judge granted me to be off probation because of AB1950,” Soto said. “When he granted me that, I didn’t even leave the courtroom. I instantly became emotional. I was crying, but it was happy, happy tears because I felt a big weight lifted off my shoulders. I felt like I could breathe and I was able to go home. I came back to work that same day. All my coworkers and my boss had like a cake for me to celebrate, my family, too. They bought me flowers and dinner. It was just a huge relief to know I don’t have to live in fear no more and worry if I’m gonna get in trouble or like when can I go on my next vacation with my family.”
She’s since been promoted at her job, again, and hopes to relocate since the company has expanded.
“We’re opening up in Nevada, in New Mexico, and they have always been asking me, ‘when you get off probation, let us know, ‘cause, we wanna take you to the other states to help set up and train other staff there.’ So that’s something I’m able to do now and grow in my company and hopefully, possibly move more positions higher up,” she said.
She wants this sort of reform for everyone.
“I really want everybody to have a chance,” she said. “I don’t feel the system is fair. As far as that, whether you get locked up or get felony probation or even parole, I feel like everybody needs a chance. Whether it’s your first time or second time, I feel like everybody needs a chance and people need to see change. And I feel like when you’re on probation or parole, you’re not able to change because again, as I said, you’re in constant fear. I want people to be able to know there is hope after conviction. Like you could still be successful. I think back to when I first got convicted, I felt hopeless.”
Criminal justice reform is still needed across the country
While REFORM has celebrated success in several states, the organization still wants to eradicate issues across the country. And systemic problems are everywhere, but every state is different.
“Every state is structured differently,” Rooks said. “Some states it’s constitutional to pass a budget. In other states, it’s not constitutional to pass a budget. And so that means legislators are incentivized to come together to pass something. But if you are in a state that isn’t constitutional to pass a budget, it becomes a lot harder to bring legislators to the table. In some ways it’s not about Northeast versus South, it’s about how the legislature is constructed. It makes passing laws very, very difficult. What’s also true is that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. When you have common sense governors that understand that issue, you usually are able to see reform, so it’s different state by state, for sure.”
But Rooks is convinced that the country is in the perfect position to make changes.
“I believe we are at a place where it’s it’s time to transform systems,” he said. “People understand that there are too many people incarcerated in this country. We are 5% of the world’s population, yet we have 25% of the world’s prisons – that’s too much. And so across the board, people understand that what we now need to do is to change and transform systems that are responsible for mass incarceration. That’s what we’re trying to do. The probation and parole system is too big. We have too many people in them and too many people get caught in the trap door of probation, incarceration and probation. And so we want to change that, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
Paying it forward
As changes are made, new survivors look for ways to pay it all forward.
Cassandra Owens is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated to New York City from Haiti. Pre incarceration, Owens managed her own law practice for more than ten years. Then she ran into trouble with the law and served four years in a federal prison which spanned through the top of the COVID-19 pandemic. Per the CARES Act, Owens was able to be released one year early. She is now a program associate at REFORM Alliance as a member of its advocacy team. In this role, she helps the legal department vet cases and assists survivors in sharing their stories.
“As much as I think I have overcome, I see that there’s still more that I need to overcome,” Owens told Blavity. “And before working at REFORM, I was never comfortable sharing my story, even speaking. But as a program associate, I speak to individuals all across the country. I assist them in sharing their stories and those are the stories that guide REFORM’s policy and also our communication campaigns. Not only does it help the person who I’m speaking with overcome, but it also helps me overcome. And it helps all of those who are under the burden of parole, probation and federal supervision overcome.”
The idea of overcoming, Owens said, is important to one’s mind post being in the criminal justice system.
“When you are released, what do you think? You’re free, right?” Owens said. “But then you come to find out slowly, but unequivocally that you’re not, and that’s crushing because you’ve just done all this time. You ‘paid your debt to society,’ to realize your debt to society may never be paid off. I speak to individuals all across the country who have been impacted by parole, probation and federal supervision. And one of the individuals who I’ve spoken to recently committed his offense 30 years ago. He is well established. He is a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company. And he says, ‘I am still checking off a box.’ He did something in his 30s and he is now in his 60s, and he’s still checking off a box. So now we have to ask ourselves, you know, is incarceration, probation, parole, federal supervision – is this something that’s finite? And that’s why REFORM to me is the bomb because REFORM is here to help solve that problem, help to alleviate that burden.”
More change is coming
While REFORM has certainly been responsible for helping to create large strides in systemic change, there is still a lot of work to be done. Rooks and his team are up for all of the challenges.
New legislation work has begun in Florida. REFORM is also working in Pennsylvania where Williams’ case began in 2008.
“Pennsylvania’s a tough legislature – it is tough,” Rooks said. “It has been tough for years regardless of the issue. We’re working really, really hard to put in the graduated sanctions process, so individuals will not serve a lifetime of probation in the state.”
Rooks said they’re also working on asset-based programming like job fairs and other career pathways. They recently held a widely successful event in New York that serviced 6000 people. More like events will occur across the country.
“We bring employers together with people who need jobs,” he said. “We also have on-site barbers to cut hair; women get their nails and hair done. We get suits and we do expungement and also voter education.”
Other efforts across the country seek to build coaching centers in probation departments.
“We want to help our probation departments build coaching centers,” Rooks said. “Right now you can go see a probation officer, parole officer, you see someone with a gun. You see someone that is telling you a list of things that you have to do in order to stay out of incarceration. What does it look like if you actually see someone from probation as support or a mentor as a coach, right? That’s helping you get jobs. That’s trying to find what inspires you, what motivates you and make connections between you and those things. I think that’s a much better functional probation than having someone with a gun just talking down and looking for ways to bring you back into this system. I don’t wanna disparate probation officers. There are some places like California and others where probation officers see themselves as forward-thinking, but there are places where people feel that every part of their life is being policed and overmanaged, and if they mess up, just take a step in the wrong direction that they’re going to get sent back to prison and jail with no questions asked.”
Rooks adds that he truly believes working on root causes and forming connections is a means for criminal justice reform.
“I can guarantee you what helps people is finding out what people want, what people need, and getting them connected to those things,” he said.