Wyclef Jean Talks His Arrest, Police Shootings & Criminal Justice Reform at Collision Conference

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Wyclef Jean at Build Studio on Feb. 6, 2017 in New York City.

"We cannot let this be the new norm."

Calling for a "new age of activism," Lava Records CEO Jason Flom joined with friend Wyclef Jean on Wednesday (May 3) at the Collision Conference in New Orleans to discuss wrongful conviction and how to change a criminal justice system he called "a disaster."

Flom, who is on the board of directors of the Innocence Project and hosts the podcast Wrongful Conviction, noted how attitudes have changed drastically since he started working on criminal justice reform in the '90s. Skeptics once called him "Don Quixote, jousting at that shit," he said, but now more colleagues realize "it's our national disgrace."

He encouraged Jean to share the story of his own recent arrest, when in late March he was handcuffed by the LAPD in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. Jean related how he'd recently taught his 12-year old daughter how to behave if she should ever encounter police, but that after his arrest she asked, "You did everything you taught me to do and he still put you in handcuffs; what do I do?" He told her: "Exactly the same thing I told you to do."

"The law is mostly on the side of the prosecutors, the police," Jean said. "On the side of the citizen, info is tampered with all the time. That's a system we need to fight." 

"I tried to get arrested as a kid!" Flom said. "I was always smoking pot. Had I been in the 'hood, I would have been arrested and had a record." "You get caught for weed, I'm smoking the same weed, but when the dude catch me he's not givin' me the Willie Nelson pass," Jean responded. "I'm getting the Lil Wayne pass." 

Flom turned the discussion to the state of criminal justice reform in Louisiana, which he noted incarcerates more people per capita than any other state. "The business community in Louisiana right now is leading the charge to reverse the mass incarceration plaguing this state," Flom said. "A great coalition of the left and right is finally waking up to the reality that we cannot just lock up generations of people. It really is the new Jim Crow." 

Jean asked the tech community to consider investing in "human capital" so that wrongfully incarcerated individuals might more easily find work after release from prison. He also emphasized the need for policy makers to consider who is placed in law enforcement positions, referencing the changing police accounts of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards' shooting this past week and again recalling his own arrest.

"My first reaction was to run," Jean said. "The fear factor kicks in. All you see is these guns being drawn... We cannot let this be the new norm, where every three weeks a kid is being shot, police is walking and we're not holding anyone accountable anymore. We really have to look at our reform system and focus on who we are putting in these positions. The citizens are losing trust in their law enforcement -- and I'm saying that as someone who has law enforcement in their family. If we don't work on the core of this problem, it's going to eventually to turn into a revolution."