John Legend on America's 'Egregious' Prison Problem – And What He's Doing About It

John Legend and JustLeadershipUSA staffers (from left) Khalil Cumberbatch, Nellis Dorlisme, Erin George & Valrie Fowler
Eric Ogden

John Legend and JustLeadershipUSA staffers (from left) Khalil Cumberbatch, Nellis Dorlisme, Erin George and Valrie Fowler photographed on Oct. 17 at JustLeadershipUSA in New York City.

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On the heels of his Oscar win for the civil rights anthem “Glory,” John Legend started researching America’s prisons, which “helped me understand just how egregious we are as a nation on this issue.” Then the singer, 38, went to actual prisons, all as part of #FreeAmerica, his campaign for criminal justice reform and the nearly 7 million Americans currently under correctional control. The campaign’s mission dovetailed with the work of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit that aims to cut the country’s prison population in half by 2030. “John understands that if we’re going to end mass incarceration, you have to humanize the people it’s affecting,” says JustLeadershipUSA founder Glenn Martin, who spent six years as a prisoner in New York state, and works alongside #FreeAmerica in his efforts to shut Rikers Island Correctional Center, where he was incarcerated for a time.

For Legend, the work includes supporting the district attorney candidates who will most directly affect criminal justice, as well as lending paid support to other politicians who align with #FreeAmerica’s cause. “We want to elect a DA that cares about making the system fair and just,” says Legend, “and that justice is handed out equally no matter the race or income.”

To help Legend transform America’s criminal justice system, go to

Andrew Hampp is a vice president at New York-based music sponsorship and experiential agency MAC Presents.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.


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