John Legend penned a powerful op-ed for USA Today on Tuesday (June 21) in which he advocated for the continued support of criminal justice reform while warning against the creeping attacks from conservative forces on voting rights and abortion. “People ask me whether the movement to end mass incarceration or elect progressive prosecutors is going too far,” Legend wrote in the piece entitled “It’s Not Radical to Dream of a More Free America, or to Protect Our Basic Rights.”
With the Supreme Court poised to possibly end the abortion protections afforded by Roe v. Wade for nearly half a century, Legend argued that elevating progressive prosecutors will be “more important now than ever to help protect our rights.”
“I’ve been working on criminal justice reform for almost a decade, and I’m often branded as pursuing a ‘radical’ agenda,” wrote Legend, who has used his voice over the years to speak out on issues including gun reform legislation, anti-Asian violence and false election fraud claims by Donald Trump. “People ask me whether the movement to end mass incarceration or elect progressive prosecutors is going too far. That accusation always strikes me as odd – that a future where all people are treated fairly and guaranteed their basic rights, where people are provided mental health or drug treatment instead of incarceration, is somehow extreme.”
What Legend said is truly radical is maintaining the status quo in a nation that incarcerates more citizens than any other on Earth, while also having “intolerable levels” of gun violence and overdose deaths. “Over the past few decades, we’ve seen the conservative right use the American criminal justice system to enforce draconian policies that hamstring people’s constitutional rights – and their efforts have escalated at a frightening pace in recent years,” Legend continued, noting that local prosecutors play a pivotal role in enforcing laws and making policy decisions about which crimes they will prosecute as well as whether to charge someone and then determining their sentencing.
“They wield tremendous power, and whoever holds the office will either advance oppressive policies or serve the interests of justice,” he wrote. Legend added that the right to vote has come under attack in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, resulting in a number of conservative legislatures passing laws that have made it more difficult for people to cast a ballot, including a bill in Georgia that criminalizes giving food or water to people waiting in line to vote.
Legend also wrote about what he called conservative attacks on the right to protest, pointing to a number of bills introduced by Republican legislators in the wake of the summer 2020 George Floyd protests, some of which he said “sound like something out of a dystopian novel: Oklahoma and Iowa, for example, passed laws that forgive drivers for hitting protesters in public streets.”
With the conservative-majority Supreme Court expected to rule on a potential Roe overturn soon, Legend pointed to trigger laws in 26 states that would restrict or criminalize abortion almost immediately, with district attorneys’ offices across the country possibly facing “the choice to punish pregnant people and medical providers – or the option to fight for people’s right to choose.”
He also touched on a new Alabama law that makes it a felony for a doctor to provide gender-affirming care for trans kids, with a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison. “It’s easy to feel hopeless about the state of our country when so many radical policies are becoming the norm,” he said. “But everyday Americans have a real opportunity to help change the system by electing reform-minded prosecutors who will create safer communities and a more just system.”
Though the news is sometimes disheartening, Legend said the policies implemented by various progressive prosecutors have made a difference by prioritizing homicides, hate crime and rape prosecutions, as well as developing smart diversion programs that reduce incarceration and recidivism rates and not over-sentencing young people who commit crimes.
“It’s not radical to dream of a more free America,” Legend said. “And it’s possible to protect our basic rights – to choose what to do with our bodies, to vote and protest, to protect our kids’ health – by choosing the right prosecutors to enforce our laws.”