John Legend is an award-winning performer who has won Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys. He has just begun a residency in Las Vegas and has just released a new song. But in addition to that, he is a well-known activist and champion for voting rights and changes in the criminal justice system. Over the years, he has lent his support to a number of Democratic politicians.
In addition to this, he is lending his support to a number of progressive prosecutors who are running for office on the promise that they will reform an outmoded criminal justice system that, according to them, disproportionately punishes and over-incarcerates people of color. He is doing this so that these candidates will win.
Recently, Legend, who has a massive following on Twitter, brought attention to district attorney contests in Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon, and California, stating that these elections are “crucial to reforming our criminal judicial system.”
The vast majority of progressive prosecutors, including those that Legend is backing, are in favor of doing away with the death sentence, reducing the number of prosecutions for low-level crimes, and doing away with cash bail.
The fact that these prosecutors are going into the office with the intent and the goal of making communities safer while also making them healthier and stronger and not overusing incarceration as a tool to do so makes them more progressive than what we’ve had in the past, according to Legend. “The fact that these prosecutors are going into the office with the intent and the goal of making communities safer while also making them healthier and stronger and not overusing incarceration as a tool to do so,” he said
During an interview with Juana Summers from NPR, John Legend talks about progressive prosecutors, the criminal justice system, and the attitude that President Biden takes toward police.
These excerpts from the interview include some material that was either cut from the broadcast version or was not included at all.
Campaigns for the office of the district attorney are not normally the sort of contests that get a significant amount of attention. When did you decide that you wanted to concentrate on the prosecuting attorneys?
It is mostly up to the prosecutor to decide who will be charged with a crime, what crime will be brought against them, what sort of punishment will be sought, how much time will be served in prison, and how much bail will be set. And for far too many years, they ran unchallenged, without any attention being paid to their elections, and essentially with a sort of one-note appeal: “We take a strong stance against criminal activity. We are going to put even more individuals behind bars. We are going to have the law enforcers put the criminals behind bars.” And it was the last thing that they had to say.
Therefore, we came to the conclusion that we need to begin shedding light on these local elections, and we ought to start the promotion of the notion that we may be able to have more progressive prosecutors serving in these areas. And it would truly make a significant impact when we are working toward the objective of “decarceration” and investing in other alternatives that would assist our communities in becoming stronger and healthier.
When I looked up the candidates that you were tweeting about online, I saw that many of them were women or people of color. Let’s be honest with each other and acknowledge that, historically speaking, prosecutors and district attorneys have been, for the most part, white males. In what ways do you think it would be beneficial to increase the variety of persons working in these jobs?
Take for example someone like Kim Fox, who has won reelection in Chicago’s Cook County despite receiving our assistance on two separate occasions. She has an incredible amount of local knowledge. She is a Black lady who has experience with all aspects of our country’s criminal justice system. She has a legal degree. She works as a prosecutor, but she has family and friends in the community who have had loved ones or friends who have been incarcerated, so she understands all sides of the issue. She knows people who have survived or been victims of crime, and she has first-hand experience with what it’s like to grow up in some of the most difficult places in our country. Someone with that perspective, someone who has an intimate knowledge of the community that she’s serving and that she comes from, they are coming to it with an interaction and a level of compassion that I think is really beneficial. Someone who has served the society that she comes from. Someone who has an affectionate knowledge of the community that she serves.
If you take a more holistic and progressive approach to the task of being a prosecutor, it indicates that you are thinking about the ramifications of all of this. You aren’t simply wanting to keep more people in jail for longer periods of time, are you? You are thinking about the families that those people leave behind and the negative cycle that continues when you have one or two of your parents locked up. You are also thinking about the impact that this will have on the child and whether or not they will be more likely to commit a crime in the future because they have lost a parent to incarceration.
Therefore, you are thinking about those things more often. You exhibit a higher degree of empathy and comprehension, in addition to a better sense of connection to the community. In addition, I believe that it helps you to make better judgments that will be more holistically beneficial for the community as a whole.
It is impossible for us to have this discussion without at least briefly touching on the subject of rising crime rates, which are being seen in many parts of our nation. When it comes to politics, many people who disagree with the policies of progressive prosecutors try to make a connection between those policies and the increasing crime rates. They are, in essence, driving home the argument that tactics of this progressive ilk encourage lawlessness in communities. What exactly do you tell such individuals?
During the time of the epidemic, there was a discernible increase in criminal activity, which occurred in areas located all across the United States. During the years 2020 and 2021, there was a rise in both poverty and unemployment. Because of this, many of these things were major macro factors that altered all of our towns, regardless of whether or not those places had progressive prosecutors. And the research demonstrates that there is no relationship between having more progressive prosecutors and a rise in crime that is any more significant than the rise in crime that occurred in areas that did not have one. But the number of crimes has increased. As a result, we need to show compassion for the people who are seeing an increase in the number of homeless people in their community. In their communities, they are seeing an increase in despondency, an increase in concerns related to mental health, and an increase in drug use. They are of the opinion that action ought to be taken on this matter.
Because what they are experiencing and seeing is genuine, we need to have compassion for the people who are going through it. The answer is not that we as a society need to be harsher in our punishments. We need to focus on all of these factors that produce hopelessness, that causes poverty, that cause food insecurity, and that cause housing insecurity. This is the answer. Instead of focusing on making the criminal justice system more punitive, give these other stuff greater attention and investment.
You were among the musicians, singers, and other performers who gave speeches and gave performances during the inauguration celebrations for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. I have a question for you about the stance that the president and his administration have taken on these concerns and I hope you can answer it. We just heard the president encourage cities and states to spend more of the unspent COVID relief money in order to pay for additional crime prevention initiatives and to hire more cops.
That is a suggestion that I do not agree with. In the United States, we already spend more money on police than every other nation, with the exception of the United States and China, which spends on their armed forces combined. If increasing the amount of money spent on law enforcement was the answer to making the country safer, then the United States would already be the safest nation on the planet. If increasing expenditure on jail were the answer to making the United States the safest nation in the world, then we would be the safest country in the world. However, this is not the case.
Therefore, we should perhaps think about investing that money in things that will be more enlightening and will really reduce the amount of crime. Things like combating food insecurity, addressing people’s mental health difficulties, addressing people’s drug addiction issues, and discovering more solutions that will make our communities safer and healthier are examples of such things. We are already experimenting with the concept of allocating the greatest portion of our budget to police as well as to incarcerating and locking up individuals. Why don’t we look at some other possibilities?
We should just acknowledge the fact that we are having this conversation in the aftermath of the mass shooting that took place in a predominantly Black part of Buffalo, New York. That event has sparked and renewed this conversation about safety and racial disparities in policing, which appears to be tied very closely to the work that you are doing. We should acknowledge that we are having this conversation in the aftermath of the shooting.
Nothing here can be discussed without first addressing the issue of firearms. Consequently, if you consider the things that are tolerated in the United States of America. We spend an incredible amount of money on police, we spend an incredible amount of money on imprisoning and incarcerating people, but at the same time, we have such a permissive gun culture that there are more firearms in this nation than there are people.
When we compare ourselves to other countries and we wonder why we’re not the safest country in the world despite spending so much on policing and despite spending so much on incarceration, it’s possible that the reason is that so many people have such easy access to guns and that there is such a wide variety of guns with such a wide range of capacities available to anybody who wants them. This is something that we wonder about when we compare ourselves to other countries and when we wonder why we’re not the
Why is an AR-15 being carried by a person who is just 18 years old? Why is it that an 18-year-old can watch Fox News, as well as other places on the internet and in society, and be indoctrinated with the “great replacement” thesis without there being some sort of check on the availability of that type of brainwashing and rhetoric? Why? Why? Why? Therefore, if we really want to be safer, we need to examine the culture around the use of firearms. We need to examine some of this hate speech, which is helping to groom people who may one day commit acts of terrorism, and really concentrate on those areas — we need to focus on genuinely making us safer and making our communities healthier.
When you consider the whole of your work to this point, including your campaigning and activism, what comes to mind? Who are the people whose approaches have served as models for you?
Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Nina Simone are just a few of the legendary performers. Some of them were more visible than others, others of them were financing activists and the movement from behind the scenes, and some of them composed music that directly related to it. Again, some of them played a more significant role behind the scenes. However, each and every one of them was aware that they occupied a special place in the world. They had a singularly powerful and influential position in the system. And they put that influence to use to campaign for equality and justice while also working to bring about change.