The year 2020 has been filled with a lot of huge changes that will influence the legal system as we know it for years to come. From the effects of the novel coronavirus to the uprisings following the killing of George Floyd; every moment of 2020 has been monumental. In the midst of all this, activists of all sorts are still working tirelessly behind the scenes. One of them is someone you may know: John Legend. The singer-songwriter is an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform and he recently spoke with PushBlack about some of the things he’s been working on.
PushBlack (PB): You’ve been very involved in criminal justice reform efforts for many years now. What made you decide to focus on elected positions such as district and state attorneys?
John Legend (JL): When I started FREEAMERICA, we sat down with progressive prosecutors who were currently in office at that time who were trying to lead a more progressive conversation around criminal justice. One of the things we learned from our conversations in those early years was how important district attorneys are to the process, how much control they have over charging decisions, bail decisions, and all of the things that we normally assume judges are deciding. A lot of those decisions are pre-decided by the district attorney because they have so much of the power. Unless the defendant has a lot of money to pay for a powerful lawyer who can go to battle with the prosecutor, the chances are that the defendant is going to plead guilty. Most of the time — 95% of the cases — are resolved before they ever go to trial. Almost every decision that is critical is pre-decided by a prosecutor which then judges put their stamp of approval on.
PB: As a Black American, what makes these issues of high importance to you?
JL: I think often about race issues and race relations in America. Marginalized communities in the U.S. have been at a disadvantage since the origins of our founding. We often lead separate lives, living in separate neighborhoods. Our kids go to separate schools. We’re subject to separate judicial systems, separate access to the voting booth, separate reserves of wealth — and separate opportunities to accumulate it. Our environments and lives are segregated. Opportunities for advancement are unequal. We have “old boy’s clubs” and outdated, rigged systems that help perpetuate the systems and structures and who succeeds in America. We are the most powerful country in the world, one that promises its citizens the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but we often fail to fulfill these promises. We can and we must do better. And when I think about how we got here, it’s devastating to remember but true, that we as a country intentionally created these very systems.
PB: Can you speak to your personal experiences with the criminal justice system and district attorneys?
JL: Several of my friends and family members from Ohio have been incarcerated in our prisons and jails. As a teenager growing up in Ohio, I watched my mother deal with depression and drug abuse after my maternal grandmother — a person who filled our whole family with love — passed away. My mother’s addiction didn’t just tear her life apart; it tore me and the rest of our family apart, too. Drug addiction, for anyone who doubts it, is a serious problem, and our society is right to want to tackle it. But we’ve been going about it wrong. My mother didn’t need punishment; she needed help. Criminalizing drug abuse only further shatters people and families that are already in pieces. Much of the nation’s incarceration issue has been a result of the failed “War on Drugs.” This war has been unsuccessful in reducing drug use, but has been very successful if the goal was to become the most incarcerated country in the world.
PB: What are some of the most important changes you’d like to see the ideal DA candidates make to the criminal justice system upon taking office? And what innovative policies introduced in recent years stand out to you?
JL: District attorneys are an important lever to consider for folks who think about reducing incarceration. In the top cities and counties in America, which have the lion's share of the cases that go through the criminal justice system, if DAs take their cities and counties in a more progressive direction, that will have a huge impact on the overall system, possibly a much greater impact than work done at the federal level. I focus primarily on what their plans are to reduce the use of incarceration, such as decisions to not prosecute drug users and decisions about bail policies. I also look at the moral positions DAs want to take: do they want to pursue the death penalty? Do they want to try youth as adults? I’ve been encouraged by a number of changes that have been made by progressive prosecutors across the country — from Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, to Kim Foxx in Chicago, to Chesa Boudin in San Francisco.
PB: Are there any races that stand out to you that you think we should pay particular attention to?
JL: This year there have been about a dozen races that I’ve been closely following. I put out several endorsements on Twitter a week back. These are candidates who have upcoming elections on either August 4th or 18th. In Michigan I have endorsed Victoria Burton-Harris running in Wayne County, which is Detroit, and Eli Savit, who is running in Washtenaw County, which is Ann Arbor [Michigan]. In Arizona, I have endorsed Laura Conover for Pima County District Attorney. In Florida, I have endorsed Monique Worrell, who is running for State Attorney in the Orlando area, and Joe Kimok in Broward County. And looking ahead to the November elections, the two big races I’m looking at are Los Angeles County in California, and Orleans Parish which is New Orleans in Louisiana. I have already endorsed George Gascon for DA in Los Angeles and I’m still reviewing the candidates in New Orleans now that Leon Cannizzaro is no longer running.
PB: How would you recommend people get involved in affecting change at the local level?
JL: When you want to make change you need to do your homework. You need to read about the issues you care about and get more information so you can decide who you want to support. Many times that’s as easy as following the activist and organization on social media or signing up for a listserv and then following their instructions. People should follow FreeAmerica on our social channels to learn more about criminal justice generally, but if you join our Facebook Group you can also ask members about which local organizations they are a part of to dig deeper. We work with a lot of national groups, such as the ACLU, Color of Change, Black Lives Matter and the Movement 4 Black Lives, but also state-based organizations like VOTE-NOLA, FRRC, and A New Way of Life in Los Angeles.
PB: A lot is happening throughout the nation in terms of demanding change from the criminal justice system. What’s your hope for the outcome of all the protests we’re seeing taking place?
JL: As hard as 2020 has been, I am optimistic. The New York Times reported that the recent Black Lives Matter protests may be the largest protest movement in our nation’s history. We are seeing an unprecedented amount of attention on the issues affecting Black people in the United States, and I am really hopeful that our country is going to reckon with our racist history and move forward with making the structural changes necessary to reduce racial disparities across every issue. I am particularly hopeful about the conversations about defunding the police and the Breathe Act as it has forced us to have a conversation about where our priorities are. Police funding takes up a huge portion of our local budgets and that choice comes at a cost. We defund housing support, health care, education and child care, the arts, drug treatment, community centers, and all of the sorts of services that would actually reduce the problems we ask police to solve. Moving forward, we need to be able to imagine a healthier world and resolve to do things differently.