John Legend is on a mission to transform America’s criminal justice system. Through his Free America campaign, he’s encouraging rehabilitation and healing in our prisons, jails and detention centers — and giving hope to those who want to create a better life after serving their time. With a spoken-word prelude from James Cavitt, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, Legend treats us to his version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?”
Adam Foss doesn’t look like your average prosecutor. He wears his hair in long dreadlocks that flow down to his ankles, and beaded bracelets ornate his wrists. He spent eight years as an assistant district attorney in Boston, but rather than focusing on high conviction rates or projecting a “tough on crime” attitude, he has been far more interested in alternatives to incarceration, and on keeping juvenile offenders out of prison. Foss’s efforts might have ended there, making tweaks on the fringes of a flawed system, but in 2015, he met singer John Legend, who is no stranger to activism. Now the two want to change the way prosecutors nationwide think about their job, and to recruit them into the war against mass incarceration.
I was fortunate to grow up in a union household. I know how important they are for families and communities. I know the power unions have to organize politically on behalf of important causes. That’s why it’s so significant that the AFL-CIO, one of the largest unions in the country, has partnered with my organization #FREEAMERICA to end the harmful, immoral, and unjust cycle of mass incarceration in the United States.
This week I managed to go inside Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, the second largest in the country with a population of 1500 undocumented immigrants. A place where journalists like me don’t usually get access. I went in with two huge artists: Latin superstar Juanes and R&B singer John Legend. The obvious question was, what are these two celebrities doing inside a detention center in the middle of nowhere in Arizona? It turns out John Legend has traveled to jails across the country with his initiative #FREEAMERICA to denounce our prison system. He told me the treatment given to immigrant detainees is directly linked to the business behind mass incarceration. Legend invited Juanes who told me that because he’s an immigrant he feels very much connected to the cause.
President Obama on Monday announced a new order to reduce potential discrimination against former convicts in the hiring process for federal government employees. It is a step towards what many criminal justice reformers call “ban the box” – the effort to eliminate requirements that job applicants check a box on their applications if they have a criminal record. While the rule was once seen as a common sense way for employers to screen for criminal backgrounds, it has been increasingly criticized as a hurdle that fosters employment discrimination against former inmates, regardless of the severity of their offense or how long ago it occurred. Banning the box delays when employers learn of an applicant’s record.
The U.S. is the most incarcerated country in the world. The past 40 years of criminal justice policy have yielded crowded prisons and broken lives. The sentences have gotten longer and harsher, and too often we’ve chosen criminalization and incarceration over investment in our communities and human development. As a result of these policies, nearly 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record that shows up on a routine background check. Workers remain the backbone of our nation, but for the about 70 million Americans with a criminal record, finding employment can be especially difficult. These individuals are required to check a box that immediately disqualifies them from consideration, before even an interview or a background check, permanently shutting them out of the workforce. The “Ban the Box” campaign, led in large part by formerly incarcerated people and their families, aims to give people with criminal records a fair shot at a second chance.
This past Thursday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison; just a few days earlier, he commuted the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders. Both are steps forward in transforming our wrong-headed criminal justice system, but they are just that: steps. Our state and local governments must follow the president’s lead and transform our destructive “War on Drugs” into the public-health campaign it always should have been.
Media coverage and demonstrations stemming from tragedies around the nation have brought necessary, and far too long delayed, attention to the pressing need to fix our broken justice system. They serve as a sobering reminder of the continuing gap between the constitutional promise of equal justice under the law and the unfortunate reality of disparate justice in too many of our communities. The problems aren’t unique to Baltimore, Ferguson, and Staten Island. We face the same injustices – if not worse – right here at home.
When I saw Kalief Browder’s 2013 television interview, I wanted to meet him. He was 20 and had just come home from a more-than-thousand-day stay on Rikers. Like a lot of people I know who are disappeared by the system, Kalief seemed like the same 16-year-old he was when he went in, but he had an inner strength, an ability to stand up for himself that I deeply admired. He explained why he wouldn’t cop a plea for a crime he hadn’t committed, even if it meant facing 15 years in prison. Offered immediate release from Rikers’s notoriously grimy RNDC, after more than ten months spent in the Bing (solitary confinement), Kalief turned the prosecutor down. He didn’t think it was right to admit to something he’d never done. This weekend we learned that Kalief, who reportedly had no mental illness when he was arrested, killed himself.