‘America could be truly free’: John Legend on his fight to overhaul the criminal justice system | US politics

John Legend, the singer-songwriter and longtime racial justice activist, has thrown his weight behind political campaigns that rarely get celebrity endorsements: progressive candidates running for district attorney.

The Grammy, Oscar, Emmy and Tony winner has long been a vocal supporter of the movement to reduce mass incarceration in the US, and has backed several chief prosecutors and candidates who seek to right the wrongs of America’s racially biased criminal justice system.

Legend, who has spoken openly about the impact of his mother’s stints in jail while struggling with addiction, is advocating at a time when progressive prosecutors are facing intense backlash; an uptick in gun violence during the pandemic has led conservatives, some Democrats and media pundits to push for a return to harsh punishments and “tough on crime” policies.

Legend – who has endorsed candidates in Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon and California – spoke to the Guardian over Zoom last week about the importance of DA races, the “defund the police” movement, and his fears about the mounting opposition to reform. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you personally become interested in supporting progressive prosecutors?

It started with seeing the effect that mass incarceration had on my own family and community. Every person you lock up has a bunch of family members that feel the effects of that. When you separate a child from their parent, you’re extending this cycle of violence and trauma to that child, creating more potential for them to get in trouble in the future. We continue to be the most incarcerated country in the world. We can do better and be smarter about it. Incarcerating people and removing them from their family should be a last resort, not a first resort, and we should be actively trying to find alternatives. Thinking about mass incarceration and how we can build a more equitable and just society, how America could be truly free, I really became convinced that prosecutors are a key lever because they have a lot of power in their communities.

Why is it so important for voters to care about their local DAs?

Prosecutors make policy decisions about which crimes they are going to focus on and prosecute, how much they’re going to charge someone and what they’re going to ask for in sentencing. They decide whether to use cash bail, which is a highly discriminatory policy that forces people to stay in jail simply because they can’t afford bail, leading people to be punished just for being poor. All these decisions affect our incarceration rate. In 2017, we started a “Know your DA” education campaign with the ACLU, because most people probably couldn’t tell you who their DA was and didn’t vote that far down on the ballot or just voted for the incumbent. And then we started looking for more progressive alternatives to run.

This movement you’ve championed is now facing serious pushback across the country – what do you make of the opposition?

We have to acknowledge that crime did go up in this country during a once-in-a-century pandemic, which caused more housing insecurity, food insecurity, poverty and unemployment. It’s not just in one city – it’s everywhere, including in communities with more conservative local leadership and prosecutors. The rise in crime is not correlated to whether or not that community had a progressive prosecutor. Blaming progressive prosecutors is not consistent with facts, and it’s not a good way of assessing what happened. Crime went up and that’s real, and all of us need to care and find ways to solve these issues. But we’re not going to solve it by mass incarcerating our way to safety. If incarceration was the key to us being safer, we’d be the safest country in the world. We’re already the most policed country in the world.

You must have friends in Los Angeles who want to see a “tough on crime” response and are concerned about George Gascón, the progressive prosecutor there. How do you talk to them about this?

You start with facts. George Gascón didn’t cause the pandemic or the rise in crime due to the pandemic. And then we have to talk about the costs of incarceration, not just monetary, but the disruptions to our communities and families, the disruption that I felt myself. We have to talk about the heartbreak, despair and violence that incarceration can cause. And we need progressive prosecutors who are thinking holistically about the community and making sure we’re not overusing jails and prisons as a solution to everything. Jails aren’t the solution to mental health issues, homelessness or drug addiction. When we have prosecutors in place who believe that, we can incarcerate fewer people and divert those resources to interventions that will actually help people heal and get better, rather than jail, which exacerbates their pain and their issues. We have a gun problem in this country and all kinds of issues that lead people into crime. We need to focus on investing into our communities so that we can help prevent crime.

How do you feel about Democrats who are pushing back against progressive DAs and reforms, including Joe Biden who has strongly opposed calls to “defund the police”?

I’m mystified by the vehemence of the rejection to “defund the police” when we haven’t defunded the police. We’ve increased funding, especially due to the American Rescue Plan. We’re already spending more on policing in America than any country in the world spends on their military, aside from China and the US. Spending more and more on police with no upper limit is not the solution. I’m frustrated by Democrats who believe that throwing more money at policing is going to solve these problems and are not looking at the root causes. The solution to homelessness is increasing the supply of affordable housing and supportive housing. We can’t send the police out to “clean up the streets”. Where are we going to put these folks? In jail?

Even though crime overall is significantly lower now, do you worry we’re returning to the panic of the 1990s, when there was a push for harsh punishments surrounding the racist “superpredator” myth?

I am worried about it. Back then, it was bipartisan, and now seeing how Biden and others talk about crime, it sounds bipartisan, too. I know that they’re responding to people’s real fears, and I really do empathize. I’ve had friends who have been victims of crime recently. It’s not an illusion that people are seeing crime go up since the pandemic. People are apprehensive and afraid. They feel less safe, and we can’t just say, You’re not experiencing what you’re experiencing. But we have to say that there are better solutions than more police and prisons. And politicians have the ability to lead on this issue and not just follow or propose bandaids. They can focus on systemic issues that cause crime and actually in the long run make people safer.

What do you think people should understand about the realities of crime trends right now?

The press has an important role. They make decisions about the sources they use – and which sources they use without skepticism. You’ll find that even newspapers like the New York Times just repeat the line that the police communications department gives them without scrutiny or skepticism. It’s important that people who are explaining crime to the public, don’t sensationalize it and don’t take statements of police unions uncritically. And we have to remember that a lot of times, progressive prosecutors are getting blamed for national and systemic issues. Folks are trying to find a local scapegoat. Alvin Bragg, the progressive prosecutor in New York, got blamed for crime even before he started working.

This is not necessarily an easy issue to speak out about. I’m curious if you’ve personally faced backlash?

When I speak out about progressive prosecutors, I usually stay away from my Twitter [laughs].

Good call.

Because there is a lot of vitriol thrown my way. But what I try to make clear is that, what is radical is how many people we’ve incarcerated in this country. Our status quo is radical. I don’t think what I’m proposing about how to reform our system is that radical.