MCC photo/ Agnes Chen

On June 21, 2014, civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates gathered at the “Free Her Rally” held at the National Mall, Washington D.C. This rally sought to mobilize people around issues of mass incarceration — specifically the incarceration of women of color, which is the fastest growing demographic of people in prisons. 

In recent years, many celebrities have used their platforms to highlight flaws in the criminal justice system. The light shed on these important issues has encouraged others to pay more attention to and advocate for legislation that focuses on sentencing and reentry reforms within the criminal justice system.

Celebrities have historically played a large role in highlighting injustice, including during the civil rights movement. Performers such as Ray Charles and the Beatles refused to perform in front of segregated audiences. Tommie Smith and John Carlos used a human rights salute during the 1968 Olympics to draw attention to injustices against African Americans. Similar protests and statements are being made by celebrities today in response to a broken criminal justice system.

Attention has been drawn specifically to the injustice of mandatory minimums and over-sentencing for nonviolent crimes. Public figures have lifted up the need for sentencing reform that gives judges the discretion to hand down sentences based on individual circumstances and to provide alternatives to prison time.

The case of rapper Meek Mill has sparked conversations about how difficult it can be to escape the criminal justice system and the alarming rates of recidivism due to parole and probation violations. In 2007, Mill was arrested and sentenced to five years of probation. However, now 30, he is still facing ramifications in the criminal justice system for his arrest at age 19. Over the course of 10 years, his probation has been extended multiple times for small violations that normally would not merit punishment. Even when charges are dropped, as they were in Mill’s case, prosecutors and judges can still consider any contact with police to be a violation of probation terms. In 2017, Mill appeared in court and was sentenced to two to four years in prison by a judge, despite recommendations from prosecutors that he walk free.

Following Mill’s sentence, public figures such as the governor of Pennsylvania, the mayor of Philadelphia, and several athletes and musicians rallied behind him. Eventually, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that Mill be immediately released from prison. Upon his release, the rapper used several platforms to speak about the flaws of the criminal justice system. He credited his celebrity status for his release but recognized that many caught up in the same system do not have such media attention or support. Mill feels it is his responsibility to work towards reforming a flawed criminal justice system for everyone.

Engaging in justice conversations as a celebrity can come with significant personal risk as some feel strongly that athletes and musicians should stay away from politics. Celebrity involvement, however, can help to raise awareness and draw attention to important issues facing many marginalized communities.

Hopefully, the political engagement by those in the limelight can inspire others to act as well. In Isaiah 1, God calls us to seek justice for the voices that have been silenced. Learn more about criminal justice reform and how you can advocate for change.

 

Cherelle M. Dessus is legislative assistant and communications coordinator for the MCC Washington Office. Story Originally published on  June 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission from Third Way Cafe