John Legend condemns US criminal justice system and mass incarceration

'Wanting to end mass incarceration is not radical,' says musician

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The Independent Culture

John Legend has condemned abuses present within the US criminal justice system and called for an end to mass incarceration in the country.

The singer, who is a vocal Trump critic, said it was a natural cause for him to direct his energies towards because it is an issue which has affected him personally. Legend has a number of friends and family members who have been imprisoned – including his mother who was in jail for part of her life. 

Taking to the stage at an event in downtown Manhattan, the 38-year-old said the greatest obstacle the US faced when dealing with America’s punitive criminal justice system was overcoming the fear of certain races and communities.

The musician, who launched the campaign Free America in 2016, said "wanting to end mass incarceration is not radical” and argued America’s current prison system is what is “radically terrible, radically out of step.” 

“I think overall the obstacles we face when we talk about these issues are overcoming fear: fear of others, fear of certain skin colours or certain communities,” he said. “And then having empathy. We need empathy. We need to see each other’s humanity.”

A vast and expanding prison system has become part and parcel of American society and the country is home to the largest prison population in the entire world. In 2013, there were 698 people imprisoned per 100,000 of the population. According to a Human Rights Watch report, so-called “tough on crime” laws implemented since the 1980’s mean prisons have been filled with predominantly non-violent offenders.

“I’ve had family members, my mother included, who had a drug problem and was in jail for part of her life and I’ve had plenty of other family members who’ve been caught up in the system,” Legend, who is married to model and fellow Trump critic Chrissy Teigen, told People magazine after the panel discussion.

“Having family members locked up and seeing the effects it had on the young people and the challenges that it introduced into their lives, I knew this was an important issue and something I want to divert some of my resources and time to make a significant change in”.

Legend made the remarks at an event held in conjunction with the Close Rikers campaign and Just Leadership USA. Rikers Island is the main jail complex in New York City. Located in the East River, the notoriously dangerous institution, which holds an average of 10,000 inmates on a daily basis, has come under heavy criticism. 

According to the campaign, 77 per cent of the inmates are awaiting trial and 89 per cent of detainees are Black or Latino. In March, current New York Mayor Bill Blasio said that the 400-acre prison complex will be shut down within the next decade.

The campaign was founded by Glenn E Martin who was stabbed four times as a former Rikers inmate before he was released and embarked on a career as a criminal rights advocate.