Singer/songwriter John Legend has a new hobby: campaigning to end mass incarceration in America. And he’s teaming up with the American Civil Liberties Union to do it.
On Monday, Legend unveiled his Free America initiative, which will focus on advancing criminal-justice reform. Part of the launch this week will include a performance at a correctional facility in Austin, Texas, on Thursday. He will then hold a press conference with state lawmakers on the issue.
“We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend told the Associated Press. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration.”
One of the organizations already on board with Legend’s project is the ACLU, which has been in touch with Legend’s management for roughly the past year on the issue of criminal-justice reform. (Actor Michael K. Williams, of Boardwalk Empire and The Wire fame, has been an ACLU celebrity ambassador on mass incarceration.)
“We have been invited [by Legend’s people] to some of the different events,” Alison Holcomb, the director of the ACLU’s nationwide campaign to end mass incarceration, told The Daily Beast. “Our executive director of the ACLU of Texas, Terri Burke, will be participating in one of the press conferences that John is holding.”
Legend is also set to co-host an event with Politico in Washington, D.C., later in April. Either Holcomb or Jill Harris, who serves as her deputy director, will represent the ACLU at this event.
So far, there is no formal agreement on longer-term cooperation between Legend and the ACLU, but Holcomb says they are very much looking forward to being as supportive as they can.
“He is definitely out in front on this issue,” Holcomb said. “We certainly hope there are other celebrities who will join him… What is exciting about it is that celebrities are helping to humanize this issue, and to really share their personal experiences, [and] their personal observations of this problem.”
In February, Legend and rapper Common won an Oscar for their song “Glory,” which was featured in the film Selma. During his acceptance speech, Legend touched on mass incarceration and voting rights (the ACLU congratulated him on Twitter for doing so). Here’s his speech:
Other celebrities who have spoken out recently on mass incarceration and criminal-justice reform include Jay Z, 2 Chainz, and Russell Simmons. In 2013, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson starred in Snitch, a family drama that is all about why mandatory minimum sentencing laws are a terrible idea.
Other organizations working in favor of reform are the libertarian Generation Opportunity, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, and the umbrella group the Coalition for Public Safety. Last year, Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker introduced a bill addressing the issue.
It is unclear which of these groups or individuals, if any, will be collaborating with Free America and Legend.