Rapper Meek Mill abruptly backed out of a prison reform event at the White House on Friday because he was concerned that a meeting with President Donald Trump would have distracted the public from the topic, according to a statement obtained by NBC News.
"I was originally scheduled to be part of a panel on Prison Reform at the White House to help shed light on the issues within the system," said Mill, whose legal name is Robert Rihmeek Williams.
"Unfortunately, the focus turned to the President and Myself which concerned me that it might take away from creating a positive result from today’s discussions."
He added, "As a result, I decided not to attend so that the focus would be solely on fixing our prison system. Most importantly I remain fully committed to improving our criminal justice system."
Mill was released from prison about a month ago after being sentenced in November to a two- to four-year sentence for a probation violation — a decision criticized by his supporters as too severe. After serving five months, he was granted bail by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court while fighting his 2008 conviction on drug and gun charges.
Many pointed to the sentence as evidence of inequities in a criminal justice system where African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
After his release, the rapper said he recognized his experience as “a very important moment" and vowed to "shine a light" on how the criminal justice system treats minorities.
The president, who did not address Mill's absence at Friday's event, said his administration is pushing Congress to reform the prison system and reduce recidivism.
“For this effort, we are not just absolving prisoners of their central role in their own rehabilitation there is no substitute for personal accountability and there is no tolerance for those who take advantage of society’s generosity to prey upon the innocent,” Trump said.
“However, if we want more prisoners to take charge of their own lives then we should work to give them the tools to stand on their own two feet.”
The House is expected to vote on an administration-backed bill addressing prisons as soon as next week. It provides $50 million of funding for prisons to implement job training and education in an effort to reduce recidivism.
However, some have criticized the bill as not going far enough.
Mark Holden, chairman of the Koch-backed Freedom Partners, who has been working on passing broad-based criminal justice reform for several years, said the measure represented a realistic view of what can get done given the political dynamics.
“This is a bill that everybody agreed on,” Holden said. “The larger bills are great but they don’t go anywhere, so what’s the point of waiting?”
Advocates for criminal justice reform in the Senate, where a different comprehensive bill recently passed the Judiciary Committee, disagree.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs that committee, has said that he’s not interested in bringing up prison reform measures that address just a limited component of criminal justice reform. He said there’s widespread support for his comprehensive bill, called the First Step Act, in the Senate, and that Congress should take up meaningful reform.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who has been working with Grassley on the issue, agrees. Their bill reforms sentencing guidelines and gives judges more discretion.
“I’m sticking with Senator Grassley. We’ve made a good faith offer. We passed the bill through the committee with overwhelming support. I don’t think his position is unreasonable,” Durbin said.