It's the prison term that's mobilized the rap world: Meek Mill has been sentenced to two-to-four years in prison for violating the terms of his probation. Philadelphia Judge Genece E. Brinkley, who has presided over all of Meek's court appearances from their beginning in 2008, issued this sentence despite prosecutors' and parole officers' recommending against prison time for the rapper, and despite the fact that all charges underlying this most recent probation violation -- two arrests from this year -- have been dropped. This has led to an online petition for Meek's release, with protests from some of the culture's biggest names. This uproar demonstrates both that Meek is beloved, and that he faces a parole-based predicament few fully understand. As REVOLT News's attorney-in-residence, I reviewed Meek's court documents (you can, too) and am here to help break down the legal basics of why this series of events has landed Meek with a prison sentence. Spoiler: It boils down to a combination of judicial discretion, and a criminal justice system that's built to incarcerate.
WHAT WERE MEEK'S ORIGINAL CHARGES AND SENTENCE?
In 2008 Meek faced 19 counts of drugs and weapons charges stemming from a 2007 arrest; he was found guilty of seven of those charges, including two felonies. (The four felony charges he faced included [a] aggravated assault, [b] carrying a firearm without a license, [c] drug possession with intent to distribute, and [d] criminal conspiracy to engage in drug manufacturing or distribution; Meek was found guilty of [b] and [c].) As a result, in 2009, Judge Brinkley sentenced Meek to two years in prison and five years probation, which is less time than Meek could have served.
HOW HAS MEEK VIOLATED THE TERMS OF HIS PROBATION?
Meek's most recent probation violations, which have led to this sentence, are for a pair of arrests this year: the first, in March, was assault charges stemming from a fight in the St. Louis airport; the second, in August, were for an arrest over reckless driving during his video shoot in New York City. While neither case reached the sentencing phase -- both cases ended in plea deals in which Meek performed community service -- the arrests are in and of themselves probation violations, and have led to the court hearings in which Judge Brinkley issued this new prison sentence. These violations follow Meek's earlier probation violations (in 2011) for performing out of state without permission, contrary to his probation terms set by Judge Brinkley. As a result of previous violations, Meek's probation duration has been extended over the years.
HOW DOES THE JUDGE DETERMINE THE TERMS OF PROBATION?
While most of the terms of Meek's probation are fairly standard (including "no positive drug tests," "no travel without permission of the court," and "community service,"), it appears the judge employed what's called a special probation (as opposed to standard probation, in which terms are typically predesignated); using a "special probation" device is reasonable given Meek's unique standing as a performer and public figure who travels for work. In such cases, judges have wide discretion in setting probation terms, so as to make them fit the particulars of the case or the defendant. (Wide enough, I suppose, to justify the Judge requiring Meek to take "etiquette classes" after using the word "piss" in court in 2014. Never heard of that before!)
HOW CAN THE JUDGE SENTENCE MEEK TO PRISON IF THESE MOST RECENT CHARGES AGAINST HIM WERE DROPPED?
If a defendant violates probation, the judge has the authority to set a prison sentence equal to what was available to her for the original charges. Here, Meek is getting 2-4 years, a sentence which falls within aforementioned time period.
DOESN'T IT MATTER THAT THE PROSECUTORS AND PAROLE OFFICERS RECOMMENDED AGAINST PRISON TIME?
Prosecutorial recommendations are persuasive for a judge, but not controlling. In other words, judges are generally likely to listen to prosecutors' recommendations, but sentencing discretion is theirs. (Of course, as all aspects of the judicial system, sentencing is subject to appeal for comporting with legal standards of reasonability.) The fact that the judge chose not to follow the prosecutors' recommendation certainly makes the appeal Meek's lawyers are filing for an unfair sentence much easier. That said, I'll bet the Supreme Court case US v. Grayson comes up here (or some more specifically analogous precedent), especially on appeal. That case gives judges broad discretion for sentencing, holding that judges are "free to consider the broadest range of information in assessing the defendant's prospects for rehabilitation." Since Judge Brinkley has a long relationship with Meek's rap sheet, she may claim that she has broader information than what the prosecutor is recommending. We'll see how that shakes out!
WHAT ARE THE GROUNDS ON WHICH MEEK'S LAWYERS CAN APPEAL THIS SENTENCE?
You see Meek's legal team already at work here, laying the predicate for an appeal by telling the _New York Times_ that the Judge exhibited "enormous bias" over the years, and in handing down this sentence. In fact, if Meek can show bias or prejudice on the part of the judge, his appeal could be successful. (On the other hand, the court may weigh this argument unfavorably against the judge issuing Meek a relatively lenient sentence in the first place in 2009, and her approving his various travel requests over the years. These aren't the actions of a preternaturally biased judge.) Meek's team may also try to question the judge's fitness of character; to this end, they have publicly questioned the appropriateness of Judge Brinkley requesting that Meek "include her name in a song," and giving him "unsolicited advice on who should manage him." Context is relevant here, as everywhere, but out of context: that sure seems irregular and inappropriate. And of course, this is where Meek's team will dine out on the judge handing down a prison sentence over his prosecutors' and parole officers' recommendation to the contrary. But remember the Grayson case, and its judicial analogues.
And also remember: As the rules of civil procedure have shown, and as we've seen more visibly with every passing year, the criminal justice system is loaded with in-built discretionary mechanisms which make it difficult to obtain an objective sense of justice. There are many corners where systemic bias can creep into judicial proceedings. Watch the laws and lobby for righteous lawmakers, but laws are written, codified, and adjudicated by humans. To effect real change we need people who understand how to read and change laws. But we also need people who understand how to read and change hearts.