“Every time we lock someone up, it’s a failure in our community,” says John Legend, a renowned singer-songwriter and recently a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform.
“We failed to give that person enough opportunity to live, to make money, to be healthy, [and] to be safe,” he told a webinar hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.
Legend argued that policing in America aggravated the failures of the justice system through its disproportional treatment of people of color.
Public safety strategies have too often focused on “keeping everyone else safe from people who look like us,” he said. “I want our national leadership to have that in mind when they’re making public policy.”
Legend said he supported calls for “defunding police,” which he defined as a shift in traditional budget priorities that have otherwise privileged safety over rebuilding communities.
“I’m not saying we should get rid of police, but we should deprioritize funding of police as currently constituted in order to create the conditions which would reduce the need for police,” he said.
“It’s a matter of thinking about investing more money in doing things that will make our communities happier, healthier and safer.”
Tuesday’s webinar was the latest installment of the law school’s Achieving Racial Justice series.
In addition to Legend, the webinar featured Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park Five, a group of four Black men and one Hispanic who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989.
The conversation was moderated by John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center.
The panelists began by outlining some of the many problems they say plague America’s justice system.
Salaam explained that the Founding Fathers’ belief that Black people were inferior was reflected in the systems they created – the criminal justice system among them.
“The same system that was put in place is the same system that is in place right now, Salaam added.
Salaam cited the homogeneity of the lived experiences of lawmakers as yet another issue facing the criminal justice system.
He argued that as things stand, “the people making [criminal justice] policies are not affected” by them.
Instead, “we have to have people that have been run over by the spiked wheels of justice at the [decision-making] table.”
Reflecting on the problems described above, Salaam and Legend envisioned future policing and justice systems that are markedly different from their current forms.
“We need to live in a society where we can’t be afraid of walking while Black, driving while Black, and being Black,” Salaam said.
Legend added that we should be “building healthy communities where all of us feel safe, where all of us have access to food, healthcare, [and] education,” among other basic necessities.
To make such visions a reality, Legend said that cities and communities should follow the lead of Minneapolis, Mn., and shift some of the funds allocated for police to community-oriented services.
The “defund the police” movement entered the limelight during last summer’s national reckoning with systemic racism, structural inequality, and police brutality.
Legend argued that municipal budgets are not only statements of priorities but “moral documents.”
“Every community needs to figure out how to reallocate this money spent on our behalf,” from punitive measures to improvements in health, education and housing, he said.
“Morally, it’s the right thing to do.”
Legend also praised progressive prosecutors like Kim Foxx of Chicago, Il., Larry Krasner of Philadelphia, Pa., and George Gascón of Los Angeles, Ca., and said that voters should elect more district attorneys like them.
Legend argued that electing progressive prosecutors is paramount because they exercise wide discretion with respect to the charges they file, the bail they set, and the sentences they seek.
He added that Salaam’s life would have been much different “if the right prosecutor was in place” – one that sought the truth rather than a convenient explanation for an unspeakable crime.
Meanwhile, Salaam recommended that prosecutors get to know the people they are charging.
He recalled how, much to the contrary, the prosecutors in his case falsely portrayed him and the other four members of the Central Park Five as evil, wild, and animalistic.
It is important for prosecutors to see the full humanity of defendants because “you can do anything to a subhuman,” Salaam said.
Legend agreed and added, “no person should be defined by the worst thing they have done.”
In addition to the reforms mentioned above, Legend called on prosecutors to conduct more outreach in the communities they serve, visit the correctional facilities to which they send people, and collect and publicize data on who their offices charge, convict, and sentence.
Collecting data, in particular, will increase transparency, help prosecutors detect racial biases in their decisions, and fight the narrative that more lenient criminal justice policies lead to higher crime rates, argues Legend.
To conclude the webinar, Salaam expressed hope for a fairer justice system: “We who believe in true freedom, justice, and equality know there is a better way.”
However, referring to the fact that there will be a new administration in one week’s time, Salaam reminded the audience that the fight for reform “is not just about the next four years, but it is about lifetimes to come.”
A recording of Tuesday’s webinar can be accessed here.
Editor’s Note: For additional information on reforms to the criminal justice system, please see The Crime Report’s resource page on “Reforming the System.”
Michael Gelb is a TCR news intern. He welcomes comments from readers.