John Legend Plays Backup at Panel on Mass Incarceration

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LOS ANGELES — “We have allowed our most vulnerable children to be thrown away, to be traumatized, to be locked up in these jails and prisons and we have got to change this narrative that some children aren’t children,” Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson told a crowd of several hundred. “The way we show our commitment to children is not the way we treat privileged children but the way we treat poor children.”

He was getting backup from musician and activist John Legend, who agreed that the justice system “destroys families, it destroys communities and we cannot continue with that.” Legend founded Free America in 2015 in an effort to change the country’s view of the American prison system and more recently became involved in accelerator Unlocked Futures.

The two were talking about mass incarceration rates in the United States last week at the event Into Action, which brings together artists and activists.

Serious-looking man of color in blue suit on left speaks, holding microphone, sitting on camp chair in front of screen with large yellow words on it. Relaxed-looking man on right in blue pants, tan jacket, patterned shirt, holds microphone, listens to him. Man in blue suit speaks, pointing finger at audience.

John Legend and Bryan Stevenson speak to the audience in Los Angeles. Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has represented many people on death row.

“We need to end the school-to-jailhouse pipeline,” Stevenson said. “By lifting up the idea that all children are children, they need somebody to love them, they need somebody to hug them and they need somebody to be with them in times of urgency or crisis.” He believes labeling certain children “superpredators” furthers the negative narrative about children in communities across the country.

“They used this label to demonize a generation of children, mostly black and brown kids,” he said. “And every state in the country lowered the age to be tried as an adult, including the state of California.”

Legend said, “Part of our children being free is by us allowing them to be kids.” Both emphasized that juvenile incarceration rates will not change if communities stand idly by. “If we are going to create healthier environments in our communities, we are going to have to do uncomfortable things,” Stevenson said.

Legend ended the event with a song he said was about one important thing: “hope.”

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