Michael Rubin, a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, used to have a recurring argument with the rapper and hardcore 76ers fan Meek Mill. “Meek would say, ‘Michael, there are two Americas,'” Rubin recalled during a press conference at John Jay College in Manhattan on Wednesday. “I’d be like, ‘Bro, what are you talking about?'”
Then in November 2017, Rubin watched in court as the rapper was sentenced to two to four years in prison for doing wheelies on a dirt bike, an action that was deemed a violation of the terms of his parole. “An hour later, my phone rings,” Rubin remembered. It was Mill, who called to say, “I told you so! … I told you there were two Americas!” “You were right,” Rubin concluded, “and I was dead wrong.”
That realization set the scene for the foundation of the Reform Alliance, a new initiative dedicated to changing the “illogical laws that make no sense,” but rule the lives of the estimated 4.5 million Americans currently on parole or probation. Mill and Rubin announced the formation of the organization on Wednesday with other wealthy business and/or sports-team owners, including Jay-Z, Robert Kraft, Clara Wu Tsai, Daniel Loeb and Michael Novogratz, who have pledged a combined $50 million to this effort. (They took the stage after the Beatles’ “Revolution” played over the loudspeakers.) TV host Van Jones, also on hand at John Jay, was picked to lead Reform. “This started off as a buddy movie,” he quipped. “And it’s now become The Avengers.”
Representatives from one of the Americas appeared to awaken publicly to the plight of the other during the press conference. After a brief address from Mill, who declared his intention “to speak for the people who don’t have a voice,” Rubin noted that the rapper “taught me so much about a world that I didn’t understand at all, about the great injustices that are going on.”
Rubin wasn’t the only one speaking with the zeal of the newly converted. “I’d never been to jail before,” Kraft told the crowd. “Going there and seeing [Mill after an invitation from Rubin], I didn’t sleep the rest of the night when I got home — I was thinking how out of touch someone like myself is with what’s really going on.”
Novogratz struck a similar tone. He remembered visiting a New York City jail barge after watching Time: The Kalief Browder Story — executive-produced by Jay-Z, who was mostly quiet on Wednesday — a docuseries about a young Bronx native who died by suicide after spending over 1,000 days in pre-trial detention. “I looked at this metaphor, this slave ship, and I was like, I live in New York City… how can this be happening?” Novogratz said. “I was ashamed.”
The Reform Alliance aims to reduce the number of people affected by parole and probation law by 1 million over the next five years. “This [the number of people currently on parole or probation] is two-thirds of the population in the criminal justice system, and yet it’s been the area that’s least focused on [by reform efforts],” Rubin explained.
“We already have great groups working on the 2 million [people] that are locked up,” added Jones, a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform and the most effective orator at the event. “That 4 million that are caught up have not had enough support. And that is a revolving door that keeps [sending] them back in and back in … tricks and traps, without enough support.”
Jones also presented vague outlines of the Reform Alliance’s battle plan. “We are not going to try to get millions of lawyers for anyone,” he said. “… We’re going to change the laws and the policies.
“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” he added. “We are here to add capacity, to amplify the voices, to lift up the people who have been screaming for so long with so little attention.”
The Reform Alliance leaders did not get more specific than that, but they are definitely thinking ahead. Throughout the press conference, the organization’s leaders were already shooting down potential criticisms. They emphasized that a smaller prison population will not come at the expense of community security. “We believe you can significantly reduce the amount of people under government supervision while also keeping our communities safe — [and] also keeping our communities safe for law enforcement, who are there to keep us safe,” Rubin said.
And like good businesspeople, the Reform Alliance founders also talked about the costliness of the incarceration system, an argument that might appeal to fiscal conservatives hoping to reduce government spending. “Taxpayers are paying to keep [Mill] going [to jail], and he’s not employing all the people he could employ and generating all the tax dollars he could [generate],” Kraft said. “It’s a cuckoo system even forgetting the social impact it has.”
Finally, Rubin and Co. attempted to frame criminal justice reform as being outside of the partisan warfare that has effectively crippled U.S. government. “This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” Rubin asserted. “It’s about right and wrong.” Van Jones suggested there is already some unity around this issue, pointing to bipartisan support for the First Step Act, a bill that aims to reduce the prison population that President Trump signed shortly before the government shutdown last year.
“Both parties got us into this mess,” Jones said. What remains to be seen is whether both parties, with help from the Reform Alliance, can get us out of it.