John Legend: ‘I’m Going to Push the President to Get More Involved in Criminal Justice Reform’

AP Photo
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

John Legend appeared on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday for a wide-ranging discussion on America’s criminal justice system.

The musician, who recently launched the Free America campaign to end mass incarceration, told CNN’s Jim Acosta that more could be done to reform the country’s criminal justice system, and he will press President Obama for more progress on the issue.

“Well, I think for too long, the criminal justice system, implemented by the police, but not solely run by the police, has treated black people as though our lives are not as valuable, as though we are enemies in our communities rather than community members,” Legend began. “And we need our police to look at us as community members that they care about and want to keep safe and healthy and treat us with the same fairness that they would treat any other person.”

And far too often, that hasn’t been the case. And that’s why you see so many people walking around with the signs that “Black Lives Matter.” And the reason we have to be specific and say “Black Lives Matter” is because so many forces in American life are telling us that our lives don’t matter, that our lives are expendable, that when we are killed when we’re unarmed that we can’t get justice for that. When we are the perpetrators of crime, even though it’s the same crime as someone else, we get longer sentences or we get treated worse by the criminal justice system.

Legend also acknowledged the unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, which has seen violent protests in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.

“[W]e’re seeing it in Baltimore, we’re seeing it all over the country,” Legend said. “It’s almost to the point where it seems so commonplace that I don’t want us to get too used to it. We still need to be outraged about these things.”

Acosta asked Legend about his Academy Award acceptance speech after winning Best Original Song for the song “Glory” from the civil rights historical drama Selma. In his speech, Legend said that “there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” Legend told Acosta the issue was “personal” for him.

“Well, it’s personal for me because I’ve had family members that have gotten caught up in the system,” Legend said. “I’ve had family friends that I grew up with that have been caught up in the system. People that grew up in my same neighborhood. I could have been one of them. And so I do take this personally.”

But I’ve seen it destroy way too many families. I’ve seen it destroy way too many communities. And as I go through our schools and through our communities and see the results of this situation, where you see so many kids growing up without a father, for instance, so many kids that have some kind of parent in prison or under probation or parole, can’t get a job, can’t vote for various reasons, you just have to think that there is a better way to do this than what we’re doing right now.

“You sound like someone who might want to run for political office one day,” Acosta pressed Legend toward the end of the discussion. “We are in Washington.”

“No, I don’t want to ever run for political office,” Legend replied. “My political activism can exist outside of me running for political office.”

Check out the complete transcript of Legend’s appearance on CNN’s State of the Union.