An unlikely group that includes two of the biggest rappers in the world and three of the country’s biggest sports team owners have joined forces to rectify America’s broken judicial system. Meek Mill, Jay-Z, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, and more have launched the Reform Alliance, a new initiative focused on overhauling the probation and parole system with the goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years. To reach that goal, they’ve pledged $50 million and hired political commentator and activist Van Jones as their CEO, Rubin announced at a press conference at John Jay College in New York City on Wednesday. (Third Point Management CEO Daniel Loeb, Galaxy Digital CEO Michael E. Novogratz, and Vista Equity Partners CEO Robert F. Smith fill out the rest of the founding board and investors.)
Mill, who famously spent five months in prison last year on a technical probation violation for popping a wheelie, reflected on more than a decade spent in the system. “Every time I started fulfilling my life [within] the music industry, every year or two, there was always something that brought me back to ground zero because of probation. I always wondered what happened to the people in situations worse than mine,” Mill said. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m here to speak for the ones who don’t have a voice. I didn’t ask to be the face of reform, but I want to bridge gaps and make the world a better place, especially for my culture.”
In order to even be able to attend this event, he later noted, he had to first get permission from his probation officer to travel to New York City, underscoring the lack of freedom he still faces daily.
For Rubin, Mill’s story was a wake-up call about the racial bias ingrained in the judicial system. “Meek and I had this argument for years where he would say to me, ‘Michael, there’s two Americas.’ And I’d be like, ‘Bro, what are you talking about? We live in a great country,’” Rubin said. It wasn’t until he “witnessed the unthinkable” firsthand and attended the hearing where Mill was sentenced to two-to-four years in prison against recommendations from both Mill’s parole officer and the district attorney, that the truth slapped Rubin in the face.
“An hour later, Meek calls me from prison and goes, ‘I told you so! I told you there were two Americas!’ You were right and I was dead wrong.” Rubin continued. “That day changed my life forever. This problem is so much bigger than Meek. Fundamentally, our criminal justice system is broken and doesn’t work.” (Kraft, who is pro-Trump, later added, “This is a cuckoo system. We can make America better if we cure this.”)
Reform’s first step will be focusing the 4.5 million people on parole or probation. Jones outlined their three-point plan, saying the organization “is not a bank,” but will instead align with criminal-justice-reform groups who’ve worked for decades and “amplify” their fight rather than try to override it. “We’re not here to reinvent the wheel, but accelerate it,” he said. The alliance’s aim also isn’t to hire better lawyers for those on parole and/or probation, he said, but to go straight to the root of the problem and dismantle the laws keeping people trapped in the “revolving door” of arbitrary violations.
“We’re gonna fight different,” he said, noting that their efforts will be bipartisan (“both parties got us into his mess”). “This started out as a buddy movie and it’s now become the Avengers.”
Jay-Z saved his thoughts for the very end. He noted that, while the issue of a flawed, biased system may be news to some of his fellow founders, he’s experienced it all his life: “This is how we grew up. We’re all prisoners to this. Until everyone’s free, no one’s free.” He talked about how broken households lead to a feeling of distrust in authority that sets too many people up for failure later in life within the system.
“Your father’s gone so you’re like, ‘I hate my dad. Ain’t nobody tellin’ me what to do,’” he said. “Then you hit the street and run into a police officer and his first thing is ‘Freeze! Put your hands up! Shut up!’ You’re like — excuse my language — ‘Fuck you!’” The system, he added, is designed to then prey on that disadvantage. “That interaction causes people to lose lives. If someone commits a crime, they should go to jail. But these things are just disproportionate and the whole world knows it. A lot of these [laws] are in place now because elected officials run on them. I’m just saying the honest truth … It’s a humane issue.”
This article originally appeared in Vulture.