REFORM Alliance’s fight against the ‘trapdoor’ of probation and parole

Updated July 21 at 11:50 a.m.

Out of six million people in the U.S. criminal justice system, nearly four million of them are on probation or parole. And the impact of such a rampant practice is clear.

“In any given state, you’ll find about a quarter of the prison population are folks that have been sent to prison while on probation or parole, largely for a technical violation. Like speeding, or staying out past curfew, or going to a neighboring city, town or state,” Robert Rooks, CEO of REFORM Alliance said on Boston Public Radio on Thursday.

Rooks shared the story of his nephew from Philadelphia, who was on probation but had a job in New Jersey. He had to quit because his probation officer prevented him from traveling out of state.

“Those are the types of decisions that people on probation, parole often have to face. It’s just not fair. It’s not connected or related to why they’re on probation or parole. It’s not real accountability. And we’ve been working to change this all across the country.”

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Established in 2019, the REFORM Alliance has passed 16 bills in 10 different states to change the way probation and parole works in the criminal justice system — states that range from Florida to Louisiana to California.

“We are headed to Illinois in two weeks to pass our 17th piece of legislation. Our goal is to reform — transform — our nation’s probation and parole system, to be one that moves away from its current trapdoor: from community to prison back to community,” Rooks said.

According to Rooks, research indicates that prolonged periods of probation and parole hinder individuals’ ability to reintegrate successfully into society.

“Just imagine … you’re out on probation or parole. You have a probation officer that you have to meet with, say, two days a week. … Meet with your probation officer for an hour. And then you have an education course, sometimes drug education, sometimes it’s another thematic course you have to take for an hour. And then you have curfew at 6 or 6:30,” he said. “Where is someone to work? Where are you able to earn a living?”

To address this issue, Rooks and others have been working on removing unnecessary barriers in states like Pennsylvania. Their efforts incentivize going to work or school to shorten the supervision period.

“If you’re on probation and you’re enrolled in school, college or some kind of education program, you get credit to work time off of your probation. If you were working, you would get work credits to work time off of your probation,” he said.

Robert Rooks
DANA POINT, CA – FEBRUARY 07: VP, Alliance for Safety & Justice Robert Rooks attends The 2019 MAKERS Conference at Monarch Beach Resort on February 7, 2019 in Dana Point, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS)

Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS

The REFORM Alliance was born after artist Meek Mill was reincarcerated for popping wheelies while he was on probation in 2017. A judge found out and sentenced him to two to four years in prison. This spurred the #FreeMeekMill Movement on social media.

“It wasn’t easy,” Rooks said. “Took six months to get him out. But when he got out, through his credit, [Meek] said, ‘This is not about me. It’s about the millions of people on probation and parole all across this country that are free but not free’,”Rooks said.

He credits Meek Mill for bringing attention to the issue of probation and parole.

“I’ve been doing this work for 25 years,” Rooks said. “I’ve worked on sentencing reform. I worked on the death penalty. I worked on the war on drugs. This issue of probation and parole was seen as so technical that many folks in the field just missed. And he brought attention to it, and REFORM was born.”

Meek Mill will be part of a panel at the NAACP’s 114th National Convention hosted in Boston, as well as Robert Kraft, who is a founding partner of REFORM and sits on the board. Rook expressed deep admiration for Kraft and how his involvement helps REFORM’s reputation, saying that his involvement lends “tremendous credibility” to the organization.

“Everywhere I go across this country, especially in the center part of the country, because we were founded in relation to Meek, much of our membership is on the coast, on the West Coast. But when I go to the center part of the country, guess who people ask about? They ask about Robert Kraft,” Rooks said.

He explained that making change to such deeply entrenched systems takes time, especially with the layers of U.S. government bureaucracy.

“The beauty and the pain of our great country is that, with something that has been built at the government level, you have to undo it by changing laws at the federal, state and sometimes county level. And that’s what we have in our massive justice system,” Rooks said.

“Probation is a form of accountability, and we’re not trying to take the accountability away,” he added. “What we are doing is saying that there’s a better way to do it and as a way we can incentivize good behaviors.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said 16 bills were passed in nine different states, but the correct number is 10 states.

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