(CBS Local)– The problems with America’s criminal justice system are not new, but the conversations around racial inequality, police brutality and the prison system have intensified in this country during the past year following the death of George Floyd. There are many like REFORM Alliance CEO Robert Rooks who have been doing criminal justice reform for decades and are excited that people are finally listening and prioritizing their pleas for change.
The REFORM Alliance aims to transform probation and parole in the criminal justice system and they are starting to do that thanks to changes in state legislation and conversations at the federal level. CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith caught up with Rooks to discuss how Floyd’s death changed America, the issues with the parole system in this country and how cultural influencers like musicians Meek Mill and Jay-Z and businessmen Michael Rubin and Robert Kraft are helping to make conversations about racial injustice mainstream.
“I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m super excited about it,” said Rooks. “I think REFORM is one of the most amazing organizations in the criminal justice space. We are in a moment of listening. People across the country hit the streets a little over a year ago and they said they didn’t want America to do the different kinds of things they were seeing on their nightly TV with the murder of George Floyd. People spoke out and demanded action from their government and employers. People want to see things change. We are asking governments to change their laws in order to facilitate real help and support for people and communities.”
The REFORM Alliance came together after recording artist Meek Mill was sentenced to prison following his arrest for popping wheelies on a dirt bike in New York, which was seen as a violation of his parole. Mill only ended up serving five months in prison after many influential people came together and put pressure on Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. Recently, Mill, Michael Rubin and others were key in helping the state of Virginia to sign a historic probation reform bill and Rooks is hoping the same changes can one day be made at the federal level.
“These are people who are not only putting their resources and time in, they are committed to making change happen,” said Rooks. “We went down to Virginia and our team worked with Representative Don Scott and the Virginia legislature to make meaningful change happen in Virginia. We capped probation at five years, before it was not capped. Meek got out of the car and the love that people in Virginia gave him was awesome. Through the stroke of a pen, lives will be changed. People sense that and connect to it.”
“The federal system has about 120,000 people. That would be the 10th largest system if the federal system was a state,” said Rooks. “We’re talking about a lot of people. Currently, there is no discretion. If a supervising officer sees something, they can’t engage in best practices, which can be giving someone help immediately. We need to see increased discretion. We are excited to be partnering with folks on Capitol Hill to keep advancing important legislation we think will bring real opportunity and hope for the tens of thousands of people in the federal system.”