John Legend’s Fight for Criminal Justice Reform

John Legend

Posted on May 09, 2017, 3:24 pm

John Legend’s Fight for Criminal Justice Reform

Senator Cory Booker speaks with the Academy Award-winning musician about the campaign to end mass incarceration.


John Legend talks about why he is so passionate about prison reform?

“Part of it is having seen the effects on my own family and neighborhood, and overall in the larger black and brown communities around the country. Having so many people in prison at a time, having so many people with criminal records, has been really devastating, not just to people of color in America but especially to them. For people who aren’t interacting with the criminal justice system, there’s often this distance—they just kind of ignore it. They assume that the law is the law, and if someone breaks the law then they’ll get into trouble, and it’s kind of a fixed sentence, and that’s that. They don’t feel like it affects them, and they don’t feel they can do anything about it anyway.

When I accepted the Oscar for “Glory,” for the film Selma, something that I wanted to highlight about the movement that encompassed Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists is that we are still dealing with issues of freedom and justice in -America in the 21st century. I specifically chose to talk about our mass incarceration problem, because if you want to talk about what is going on in America today that Dr. King would be concerned about, I think mass incarceration would be right near the top.

At that point I had also been reading people like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, and I was instructing my team to put some more dollars behind it and start focusing some of our energy—almost all of which had been on education reform up to that point—on criminal justice reform. We started #FreeAmerica [a nonprofit awareness campaign]. We didn’t do it because we thought it was the most popular issue to talk about, but I’m in a position where I can help affect the conversation. You’re in a position where you can do that too, and both of us have chosen to do it. And I think people are talking about it more because of people like us, and people like Ava DuVernay, people like Jay Z doing the Kalief Browder documentary, the Black Lives Matter activists responding to specific incidents—all of us are helping to move these conversations to the forefront. I’ve seen real progress in the last few years. We’ve seen laws change, sheriffs’ change, and district attorneys change because of activism.”

Part of it is really about changing hearts. We do that through storytelling. We have a documentary that we’re working on now called Walk with Me. We have scripted films. All of these things are meant to change the narrative, humanize folks who are involved in the criminal justice system, help people see that these folks are not dramatically different from those who don’t get caught up in the system. They’re human, they make mistakes; they’re often in situations where mistakes are exacerbated by the conditions in which they live. We are focusing on thinking about how to reinvest the money, resources, and societal energy we put into punishing and incarcerating people back into improving communities, giving people hope and opportunity before they ever get into trouble, and then giving those who have a record the opportunity to redeem themselves afterward.”

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