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REFORM Alliance CEO Robert Rooks is working to transform the probation system

Criminal justice organization is committed to making a change
REFORM Alliance CEO Robert Rooks is working to transform the probation system
Photo courtesy of REFORM Alliance

Robert Rooks is the CEO of REFORM Alliance, the criminal justice organization committed to transforming probation and parole systems. REFORM was launched by co-founders Meek Mill, Michael Rubin and Jay-Z, among others, in 2019 sparked by the unjust incarceration of Meek Mill. Rooks comes full circle at REFORM from a childhood spent watching his community get decimated by crack cocaine while incarceration became a part of everyday life. Of the five close friends he grew up with — all Black boys — he is the only one still alive.

What is your mission?

Folks need to know that there are 5.5 million people in the U.S. justice system and out of the 5.5 million people in the justice system, four million are on probation and parole. The majority of people in the U.S. justice system are, in fact, on probation parole. Probation parole is basically when someone is either released from prison, or given a sentence in lieu of prison, and they are at home, but they’re living their lives adhering to a series of stipulations. These stipulations range from meetings with probation officers, [to] going to classes, or not being able to travel outside of their jurisdictions, and a host of other things. It seems reasonable but results in a web of restrictions that have played a role in increasing our nation’s prison population. So the person on probation parole today is likely to be the person incarcerated tomorrow because these stipulations just don’t make sense. The origin of probation parole was to help people get into systems of care, get them into systems of stability, and get them back to their families and community. That’s where it started. But today, it serves as a trap door … so it’s a system that plays “gotcha” with people as opposed to helping them.

What is the conversation like with a young kid exposed to the system?

There is a story and experience that’s not unfamiliar to young people and to folks asking about these issues. What I talk to them about is now what are we going to do about it? How are you going to make sure that you stay off parole? [I ask the family] how can I help you be supportive? If you have a loved one, let me say it this way. Be helpful and supportive, and find out what they need to be successful. If you are angry and upset by the system, join organizations like REFORM to make change happen at the local, state or federal level, and share your story. If you’ve been impacted yourself, your loved one [has], or [you] know someone that’s been impacted, stories matter. Stories help us connect as people. Your story could be the story that’s needed to change a legislator or to bring someone else in. There’s a lot that we all can do in this moment, where changes are needed.

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