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John Legend wants to transform the criminal justice system, one DA at a time

John Legend poses backstage during the LDF 34th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner on May 10, 2022 in New York City.
Arturo Holmes
Getty Images for Legal Defense Fund
John Legend poses backstage during the LDF 34th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner on May 10, 2022 in New York City.

John Legend is an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award-winning entertainer, who recently kicked off a Las Vegas residency and just released a new single. But he's also a well-known activist and advocate for criminal justice reform and voting rights who has supported a number of Democratic candidates over the years.

He's also throwing his support behind a number of progressive prosecutors who are running on a promise to reform a criminal justice system that they say is outdated and that disproportionately punishes and over incarcerates people of color.

Legend, who has a mammoth following on Twitter, recently shined a spotlight on district attorney races in Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon and California – arguing that these elections are "crucial to improving our criminal legal system."

Most progressive prosecutors, like the ones Legend is endorsing, support eliminating the death penalty, limiting prosecutions for low-level offenses and ending cash bail.

"The fact that these prosecutors are going into office with the intent, with the goal of making communities safer but 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," Legend said.

In an interview with NPR's Juana Summers, Legend discusses progressive prosecutors, the criminal justice system and President Biden's approach to policing.

These interview highlights contain some additional content that did not air in the broadcast version.

Interview highlights

Races for district attorney are not the kind of campaigns that typically get a ton of attention. Was there a moment that made you want to focus on prosecutors?

Prosecutors have so much influence over who gets charged, over what they get charged with, over what kinds of punishment is pursued, what kinds of jail time and bail amounts. And for far too long, they were running unopposed, running without much attention devoted to their elections and running basically with kind of a one-note appeal: "We're tough on crime. We're going to lock more people up. We're going to put the bad guys in jail." And that's all they had to say.

So we decided we should start shining a light on these local elections and we should start encouraging the idea that we could have more progressive prosecutors in place in these communities. And it would actually make a big difference when we're pursuing the goal of "decarceration" and investing in other solutions that would help our communities become stronger and healthier.

When I looked online and saw the candidates that you were tweeting about, they're often women or people of color – and we should just be frank here that historically, prosecutors, district attorneys, they have largely been white men. What benefit do you see to expanding the types of people who are in these jobs?

Look at someone like Kim Fox, who we've supported twice and she's been reelected in Cook County, which is Chicago. She knows her community so well. She's a Black woman and she has seen all sides of our criminal legal system. She's a lawyer. She's a prosecutor, but she also knows family members and community members that have been on the other side of things who have been locked up. She knows folks who have been survivors and victims of crime, and she knows what it's like to grow up in some of our most challenged communities. Someone with that perspective, someone who has an intimate knowledge of the community that she's serving and that she comes from, they're coming to it with an experience and a level of empathy that I think is really helpful.

When you approach the job of being a prosecutor more holistically and more progressively, it means you're thinking about the effects of all of this. You're not just trying to lock more people up for more time. You're thinking about the families that those folks leave behind and the negative cycle that that continues when you have one or two of your parents locked up and what effect that will have on the kid and whether or not they'll be more likely to commit crime in the future because they've lost a parent to incarceration.

So you're thinking about more of those things. You have a level of empathy and understanding that is greater and more connected to the community. And I think it enables you to make better decisions that will be holistically more beneficial for the community.

We can't have this conversation without talking a bit about crime rates, which are on the rise in many places across this country. Politically, many opponents of progressive prosecutors seek to draw a link between the policies of those prosecutors and rising crime rates. They're essentially making the point that these sort of progressive approaches are fostering lawlessness in communities. What do you say to those people?

Crime really did go up during the pandemic, and it went up in communities all across the country. Poverty went up, unemployment went up during 2020 and 2021. And so a lot of these things were big macro conditions that changed in all of our communities, whether they had a progressive prosecutor or not. And the evidence shows that there's no link between having more progressive prosecutors and crime going up any more so than it went up in communities that didn't have one. But crime has gone up. And so we have to be empathetic to folks who are seeing more homelessness in their communities. They're seeing more despair, they're seeing more mental health issues, more drug dependency in their communities. And they're saying, we've got to do something about this.

John Legend performs onstage during the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2022 in Las Vegas.
Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Getty Images for The Recording Academy
John Legend performs onstage during the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2022 in Las Vegas.

We need to empathize with folks who are feeling that and seeing that because it is real. The solution isn't, we need to be more punitive as a society. The solution is, we need to work on all these issues that cause despair, that cause poverty, that cause food insecurity, that cause housing insecurity. Focus on those areas, invest in those areas and not in a more punitive criminal legal system.

You were among the artists and entertainers who performed during inaugural events for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. I want to ask you about how the president and his administration have positioned themselves on these issues. We heard the president recently urging cities and states to spend more unspent COVID relief money to pay for more crime prevention programs and hiring more officers.

I don't agree with that recommendation. We already spend more money on policing in America than any other country spends on their military, aside from the United States and China. So if spending the most on policing were the solution to make us safe, we would already be the safest country in the world. If spending more on incarceration were going to be the solution to make us more safe, we would be the safest country in the world, but we're not.

So maybe we should consider spending that money on things that will be more edifying and actually prevent more crime. Things like fighting food insecurity, dealing with people's mental health issues, dealing with people with substance abuse issues, finding other interventions that will make our communities safer and healthier. We already are trying the idea of spending the most on policing and the most on jailing and incarcerating people. Why don't we try some other ideas?

We should just acknowledge here that we're having this conversation in the wake of the mass shooting in the predominantly Black part of Buffalo, N.Y. and that has sparked and renewed this conversation about safety and racial disparities in policing, which seems tied very closely to the work that you're doing.

We can't talk about any of this without talking about guns. So if you think about the things that we are OK with in America. We spend all this money on policing, we spend all this money on jailing and incarcerating people, but we also have such a permissive gun culture that we have more guns in this country than human beings.

So when we compare ourselves to other nations and we're wondering why we're not the safest country in the world despite spending so much on policing, despite spending so much on incarceration, perhaps the reason is that so many people have such easy access to guns and such a range of guns with such a range of capacities available to anybody who wants them.

Why is an 18 year old walking around with an AR-15? Why is an 18 year old being exposed to this "great replacement" theory on Fox News and on other areas on the internet and in throughout culture without there being some kind of check on the availability of that kind of indoctrination and rhetoric? Why? Why? Why? So if we really want to be safer, we need to look at gun culture. We need to look at some of this hate speech that is is grooming future terrorists and really focus on those areas – focus on actually making us safer and making our communities healthier.

When you think about the span of your career so far, your advocacy, your activism. Who are the models that have shaped your approach?

Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin. Some of them were more visible, some of them were behind the scenes funding activists and funding the movement, and some of them made music that spoke directly to it. Some of them again were more behind the scenes. But all of them knew that they were in a unique position. They were in a unique position of power and influence. And they used that influence to fight for justice and make change and fight for equality.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.
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