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How REFORM Has Been Fighting to Keep Freed People Free, According to CEO Robert Rooks

The fight for criminal justice reform has been long and difficult. For decades Black and brown people have wrestled against the United States government over its blatant efforts to not only incarcerate as many minorities as possible but to keep them in prison for as long as they can. This agenda manifests itself in numerous ways, but none as obvious as parole and probation. The current versions of these two systems have been so detrimental to communities of color that they’ve often been referred to as “pipelines back to prison.” That is why in recent years organizations like REFORM Alliance have risen to change the way America treats its formerly imprisoned.

CEO of REFORM Robert Rooks

We had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Rooks, CEO of REFORM, about the organization he leads, his history with activism and the ongoing struggle for change.

When and how did you join the fight for criminal justice reform?

I’ve been in the criminal justice reform movement for more than two decades. I grew up in Dallas in the 80s and 90s and saw my community decimated by crack cocaine and the war on drugs. The response to our struggles was not support and resources, but batons and prison. The system failed to keep our Black community safe. That inspired me to create change for the next generation and led me to a career advocating for survivors of crime and people who have been impacted by the system.

What is REFORM and how did it begin?

At REFORM we’re focused on transforming our probation and parole system into one that creates real pathways to work and wellbeing. There are about 4 million people on probation, parole, or some other form of supervision — far more than in prison. Too often, these individuals fall through trap doors in the system and then find themselves back in prison, not for committing a new crime but for a technical violation of their probation or parole. That’s what happened to rap artist Meek Mill, who was sentenced to up to four years in prison for a technical violation of his probation. What happened next was amazing. Some of the biggest names in business, sports, and entertainment saw what happened to Meek and joined together to create REFORM.

How has leading REFORM been different from your previous roles in activism?

I have spent my career advocating for Black victims of crime and Black system-impacted people. The uniqueness and beauty of REFORM is that it was born out of the experience of a Black man – the journey of Meek Mill. I don’t think many other policy organizations can say that. And to be a Black CEO of an organization created from a Black man’s experience means the world to me. It’s a special responsibility to stand up for our community because there are so few Black CEOs.

What aspects of probation and parole harm Black and brown people the most?

Racial disparities pervade our entire criminal justice system. Black people disproportionately fill our prisons. Black people are more than twice as likely to be on probation and nearly 4 times more likely to be on parole than white people. The economic consequences of incarceration are especially devastating for Black and Brown people who lose out on significant earnings over the course of their lives and face an enormous amount of barriers in trying to provide for themselves and their families.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of REFORM Alliance

Could you explain how probation and parole are “pipelines back to prison”?

Every day people on probation and parole need to navigate a complex web of rules and stipulations. Failing to adhere perfectly and precisely to those conditions can result in what’s called a technical violation. When someone gets a technical violation, they can be sent to prison. This is happening about every five minutes. Sending people to prison or back to prison for technical violations doesn’t make us safer. It destroys people’s lives, takes away their livelihoods, tears apart families, leads to community instability, and perpetuates a vicious cycle of prison and poverty.

How does REFORM fight back against this pipeline?

We must provide a pathway to economic opportunity for more people, in particular those on probation and parole. The private sector is a critical part of the solution. We are engaging companies across the country to put in place common sense reforms that would enable more formerly incarcerated people and those on probation and parole to get to work. And we should incentivize them to hire more people who have been impacted by the system.

Do you believe parole and probation have any place in our culture and society at all?

Absolutely. I believe that probation and parole present a key opportunity to make our criminal justice system fairer and more effective. Probation and parole were designed as alternatives to incarceration but instead have become a pipeline to prison. Probation and parole should be springboards to success that support people and help them achieve stability. It’s REFORM’s goal to go state by state, county by county, to educate people about the cracks in the system and advocate for reforms that strengthen probation and parole practices so they encourage wellness instead of incarceration.

Where in the United States has it been most difficult to push for criminal justice reform?

I’ve worked all across the country in red, blue, and purple states from California to Florida to Pennsylvania to Illinois. Our movement has achieved big, bold wins for communities. But each locality has had its own set of unique challenges. One of the most difficult things about this fight is there are no quick fixes, no easy solutions, no cure-alls. The criminal justice system is made up of a web of policies that span local, state, and federal law.

Are there any plans to take the fight to the federal level? If not, why? If so, when?

The First Step Act, passed in 2018, has made improvements to federal prisons and brought more fairness to federal criminal sentencing, but there is much more work that must be done. – So yes, when we look at the federal criminal justice system – which is one of the biggest prison systems in the country and one of the biggest supervision systems in the country, we know there’s an opportunity for impact and leadership. We are working on supervision legislation now that I hope will bring the system another step forward. I look forward to sharing more when our bill is introduced.

Photo Credit: Shareif Ziyadat

Outside of the legislative aspect, what else does REFORM do to help those on parole?

Last November, amid historic labor shortages, we held a first-of-its-kind job fair at Madison Square Garden. Thousands of people came. They could get their hair cut and their records expunged. We trained people on resume writing and gave away hundreds of suits. And people walked out with real jobs. It was an incredible sight to behold with a clear message: People impacted by the system want to work. They want to contribute to their families and communities. They just need opportunity.

What action can our readers take to help in the struggle for criminal justice reform?

There are several ways to get involved. First, join REFORM. Sign up to become a member by texting REFORM to 81411. Learn more about our mission. Attend our town halls. Share your story. Second, support our federal bill. We’re working to reform federal supervision, and your voices are critical to making it a reality. Learn more about our work at and then call your legislator, tell your friends and family to call their legislators. There is power in numbers. Third, get involved with local groups. The grassroots is where real change happens. Advocating for public safety solutions at the local level is one of the best ways to make an impact in your community. Fourth, if you’re an employer, hire system-impacted people or consider participating in one of our job fairs.

Check out the 2022 Culture Issue.

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