John Legend: Criminal Justice System Destroying Communities of Color

Grammy and Academy Award-winning artist John Legend called on the White House and Congress to reform the criminal justice system, which he said is “destroying” communities of color.

“Most of my activism up to this point had been in our schools, which I still think is very important. We need to continue to invest in our schools, making sure our kids get access to a great education, great teachers, great emotional support when they are going through trauma and difficulty in their home life and in their neighborhoods,” said Legend at an event sponsored by POLITICO on the modern civil rights movement.

“All of that is important. It’s critical but as soon as they slip through the cracks, as soon as something goes wrong, as soon as they get in trouble, all of our compassion melts away and we turn them into villains. We lock them up for a long time. We break up their families, waste so many lives in a system that, as I said at the Oscars, is the largest system of incarceration in the world and its not get even close. We’re ahead by far,” he added.

Legend said the criminal justice system in America is hurting communities of color.

“Particularly communities like the ones I grew up in, my neighbors, my friends, so when I see that and I think about what justice means today, and when I think about what community-building means today, and what giving back means today, I can’t think about just the schools. I have to think about the criminal justice system too because it’s affecting so many lives,” he said.

Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said criminal justice reform is a top priority for President Obama. Muñoz called criminal justice reform a moral and fiscal issue.

When looking at ways to make sure everyone is sharing equally in the economy, Muñoz said states cannot afford to lose the talent, hands, hearts and minds that are behind bars.

“What you find is people on both sides of the aisle in the states who have finally figured out that the policy choices we made in the ’90s are fiscally unsustainable, and so that has planted the seeds of what will hopefully be the unraveling of some of the really horrifying choices that we made,” she said.

In response, Legend said criminal justice reform should not be viewed only as a cost-saving issue.

“I’m concerned that if you just think about it as cost-cutting, and you’re not thinking about how you reinvest in those communities that have been destroyed for so long, that’s not sufficient,” he said. “We need to think about how to improve our communities so kids aren’t going in the wrong path in the first place, and that’s going to take investment.”

Legend said the government cannot “cost cut” its way to better schools and counseling as well as more pre-kindergarten for kids.

“So if all you are thinking about is how do I shrink the size of government and part of your scheme is to reduce prisons, that’s great -- but there’s a lot more work to do that will actually cost the money that you’re probably saving from getting rid of the prisons,” he said.

Before the panel discussion, Van Jones, former CNN Crossfire panelist, said marijuana should be legalized.

“We need to decriminalize, regulate and tax marijuana in order for us to be able to get the prison population down and focus on rehabilitation, not on incarceration,” he said.

Jones said if 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wants to mobilize the same level of support from young African-Americans that Obama did, she has to address issues related to the justice system.

“You have a whole generation of young African-Americans, in particular with Black Lives Matter, etc., who really want to see her speak out and say something about this crisis that we’re having. We’re having too many young African-Americans being killed by police and too young African-Americans going to prison for nonviolent drug offenses,” he said.