April 26th, 2015
01:13 PM ET

John Legend: "we get treated worse by the criminal justice system"


Today on CNN’s State of the Union, John Legend, musician and co-founder of Free America campaign, joined Jim Acosta to discuss police brutality in the criminal justice system, political activism, and his career in the entertainment industry.

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

On police brutality in the U.S.: “Well, I think for too long, the criminal justice system, implemented by the police, but not solely run by the police, has treated black people as though our lives are not as valuable, as though we are enemies in our communities rather than community members.  And we need our police to look at us as community members that they care about and want to keep safe and healthy and treat us with the same fairness that they would treat any other person. And far too often, that hasn't been the case.  And that's why you see so many people walking around with the signs that "Black Lives Matter." And the reason we have to be specific and say "Black Lives Matter" is because so many forces in American life are telling us that our lives don't matter, that our lives are expendable, that when we are killed when we're unarmed that we can't get justice for that - for that. When we are the perpetrators of crime, even though it's the same crime as someone else, we get longer sentences or we get treated worse by the criminal justice system.”

 

On the significance of criminal justice reform to him: “Well, it's personal for me because I've had family members that have gotten caught up in the system.  I've had family friends that I grew up with that have been caught up in the system.  People that grew up in my same neighborhood.  I could have been one of them. And so I do take this personally. But I've seen it destroy way too many families.  I've seen it destroy way too many communities.  And as I go to - through our schools and through our communities and see the results of these - this situation, where you see so many kids growing up without a father, for instance, so many kids that have some kind of parent in prison or under probation or parole, can't get a job, can't vote for various reasons, you just have to think that there is a better way to do this than what we're doing right now.”

 

On rating President Obama’s leadership:     

“LEGEND:  I think there's been a lot of successes.  I think health care reform is one that I'm particularly proud of.  I think the fact that no...
ACOSTA:  You worked hard to get him elected.
LEGEND:  Yes, absolutely.  Health care being affordable and accessible to so many more Americans now is going to go down in history, I think, as a huge accomplishment.  I think the stimulus package, I thought it could have been a little bit bigger.

But I think what it did accomplish was bringing the unemployment rate down to where it is now.  And making...

ACOSTA:  What if he doesn't get a handle on this policing issue?

LEGEND:  I think there is more to do and - and I - I'm going to push the president to get more involved in criminal justice reform. “

TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

 

ACOSTA: Thanks for being on STATE OF THE UNION.

JOHN LEGEND, ARTIST: Yes, thank you for having me.

ACOSTA: Just in the last week or so, what's flared up in Baltimore has heightened awareness once again of this issue of police brutality...

LEGEND: Yes.

ACOSTA: - in Baltimore, alleged police brutality.

Do you think there is an epidemic of police brutality happening in this country right now?

LEGEND: Well, I think for too long, the criminal justice system, implemented by the police, but not solely run by the police, has treated black people as though our lives are not as valuable, as though we are enemies in our communities rather than community members. And we need our police to look at us as community members that they care about and want to keep safe and healthy and treat us with the same fairness that they would treat any other person.

And far too often, that hasn't been the case. And that's why you see so many people walking around with the signs that "Black Lives Matter." And the reason we have to be specific and say "Black Lives Matter" is because so many forces in American life are telling us that our lives don't matter, that our lives are expendable, that when we are killed when we're unarmed that we can't get justice for that - for that.

When we are the perpetrators of crime, even though it's the same crime as someone else, we get longer sentences or we get treated worse by the criminal justice system.

ACOSTA: And do you think that we're just seeing a - a greater number of these types of cases right now or is it...

LEGEND: I honestly think it's just because...

ACOSTA: - because, or is it because a heightened awareness?

LEGEND: - I think there's more awareness. I think there's more technology that allows us to have transparency. But I think this has been happening...

ACOSTA: Cell phone cameras.

LEGEND: Yes, cell phone cameras. And I think it's - in some ways, it's a good thing, but in other ways, it's almost like it's numbing to the extent to which we're seeing it. Because we're seeing something new almost every other day.

ACOSTA: Right. The case down in South Carolina...

LEGEND: Yes, South Carolina...

ACOSTA: - where a man is gunned down...

LEGEND: - we're seeing it in Baltimore, we're seeing it all over the country. It's almost to the point where it seems so commonplace that I don't want us to get too used to it. We still need to be outraged about these things.

ACOSTA: Yes. And - and I'm just curious, we have not heard from President Obama on the situation in Baltimore and on the situation in South Carolina. The last couple of weeks, he hasn't commented on it. He has a lot on his plate, obviously.

LEGEND: Sure.

ACOSTA: He's working on a lot of different issues.

LEGEND: Sure.

ACOSTA: You've been a big supporter of his over the years...

LEGEND: Yes.

ACOSTA: Do you think he's said enough on this?

LEGEND: I think there's more to be said. But I also think it's not as important that he comments on every case. It's important that we reform the system, on the federal level and the state and local level, as well.

And it's not just about these killings which are very important and a huge concern in the community, but it's also about what I've been talking about for a bit in the past couple of weeks, is - is mass incarceration and the overall way that the criminal justice system treats particularly black and brown communities, poor communities. We are the most incarcerated nation in the world. And we've gotten there through a set of policies that have been in existence over the last 40 years.

We have to have more than just press conferences. We need to have real changes in policies.

ACOSTA: And, John, I remember when you launched this campaign, you went to a prison.

LEGEND: Yes.

ACOSTA: To perform if I'm not mistaken.

LEGEND: Yes. I went to a prison in...

ACOSTA: What was that like?

LEGEND: - in Austin. I went to a prison in Sacramento. I went to Old Folsom Prison, where Johnny Cash performed.

ACOSTA: Right.

LEGEND: And I've also visited other facilities in California, and today actually here in DC, we went to go visit an alternative program for youth who get caught up in the juvenile justice system, finding ways other than incarceration to help our young people who get into trouble.

And a...

ACOSTA: Have you - have you found some solutions to this issue of mass incarceration?

LEGEND: Well, I think, actually, what we saw today was a great thing, because it was saying that we don't need prison as an - as the solution for every problem. So when our young people get in trouble, a lot of times it's non-violent, a lot of times it's minor fights and things like that. A lot of times they've been sent to the prison system, to the juvenile justice system and locked up when there are other ways to deal with them and other ways that are more community-based and more focused on restoring them so that they can come back and - and live a good life if - and pursue their dreams. These are kids that are 15, 16 years old. For us to give up on them and throw their lives away at that age is just a travesty.

And so we've seen that. We've seen people who have gone through all kinds of trauma who are living in a cycle of - of broken lives, where, you know, they've had issues with their own parents, issues in their own communities. They've seen people get killed. They've seen family members get locked up.

And so they're already broken. They're already people who have gone through so much and then when they get in trouble, they end up back in that same system.

And so we need to find ways that are - are better and...

ACOSTA: We've got to figure out how to get to these at-risk kids before...

LEGEND: Exactly.

ACOSTA: - …they become incarcerated.

LEGEND: So I was spending so much time focusing on schools - and I still do. We focus on helping make sure that teachers that are doing great - a great job are - are getting their solutions funded and - and getting their work seen around the country so that we improve our schools, improve the instruction quality, that we have for the kids, make sure the resources that they need are there, make sure that if they have emotional traumas that they have gone through that we offer support for them.

But it's also important that for the kids that slip through the cracks, who - who all these interventions having gotten to yet, that we find solutions that aren't always all about locking them up. We've made a decision as a country, over the last 40 years, that we're going to deal with most problems - like poverty, drug dependency, mental health issues - by putting people in prison.

And...

ACOSTA: Can I challenge you on that for a second?

LEGEND: - I'm suggesting that's not the way.

ACOSTA: Well, let me challenge you on that, because if you look at the crime statistics across the country, crime is at a generation low levels.

LEGEND: Yes, and...

ACOSTA: we haven’t seen...

LEGEND: - and incarceration hasn't gone down...

ACOSTA: Yes.

LEGEND: - to reflect that the crime has gone down. And...

ACOSTA: But is incarceration...

LEGEND: - the reason they...

(CROSSTALK)

LEGEND: - and they recently did a study...

ACOSTA: - …is incarceration helping lower the crime rate?

LEGEND: - because intuitively, you might say, well, the reason why the crime went down is because we locked all the bad people up.

ACOSTA: That's right.

LEGEND: But a recent study just said that's statistically just not the case. There's a small percentage of it that impacted the crime rate early on, but over the last 10 or 15 years, incarceration hasn't improved the crime rate.

ACOSTA: Well, let me ask you...

LEGEND: There are a lot of other factors that have.

ACOSTA: I'm going to get in a lot of trouble if I don't ask you about your work, because you have a lot of fans, not only at CNN, but around the country, around the world.

You won an Academy Award for the song "Glory."

LEGEND: Yes.

ACOSTA: Which you co-wrote with Common.

LEGEND: Yes.

ACOSTA: And you said more black men are under correctional control than they were under slavery in 1850.

LEGEND: Um-hmm.

ACOSTA: This is personal for you.

LEGEND: Well, it's personal for me because I've had family members that have gotten caught up in the system. I've had family friends that I grew up with that have been caught up in the system. People that grew up in my same neighborhood. I could have been one of them.

And so I do take this personally.

But I've seen it destroy way too many families. I've seen it destroy way too many communities. And as I go to - through our schools and through our communities and see the results of these - this situation, where you see so many kids growing up without a father, for instance, so many kids that have some kind of parent in prison or under probation or parole, can't get a job, can't vote for various reasons, you just have to think that there is a better way to do this than what we're doing right now.

And we are a - an - we are different from every other country in this regard.

Why did we choose incarceration over other solutions?

We could do better.

ACOSTA: Yes.

And what means more to you, winning an Academy Award, winning all these Grammys, or your political activism?

LEGEND: You know what, I'm fortunate that they're not separate, you know. My music has given me an opportunity and particularly winning the Oscar for "Glory," for a film, "Selma," which is all about fighting for justice and equal rights for all, it gave me an opportunity to speak out on behalf of people who may be voiceless otherwise, who people may not listen to otherwise. ;

And I'm trying to back that - back that up with actual action, with actual building - actually helping to build a movement toward a more fair and just and compassionate and smarter criminal justice system.

ACOSTA: You sound like somebody who might was not to run for political office one day.

We are in Washington.

LEGEND: I have no interest.

ACOSTA: I have to ask the question. I have no interest?

LEGEND: No interest.

ACOSTA: Reporters like me will always say that's not a - that's not a no. That's...

LEGEND: No, really...

ACOSTA: That's like saying I'm not running right now.

LEGEND: No, I don't want to ever run for political office. I absolutely - my political activism can exist outside of me running for political office.

ACOSTA: And what do you make of the White House Correspondents Dinner, this - this crazy weekend...

LEGEND: It's fun.

ACOSTA: - we have every - every year?

LEGEND: It's fun. I love comedy and I feel like folks in Washington have a pretty tough job and they have a lot of bad news they have to deal with every day. And it's night - it's nice to lighten things up a little bit.

ACOSTA: And - and just very - finally, President Obama, how did - how would you grade his presidency right now?

LEGEND: I think there's been a lot of successes. I think health care reform is one that I'm particularly proud of. I think the fact that no...

ACOSTA: You worked hard to get him elected.

LEGEND: Yes, absolutely. Health care being affordable and accessible to so many more Americans now is going to go down in history, I think, as a huge accomplishment. I think the stimulus package, I thought it could have been a little bit bigger.

But I think what it did accomplish was bringing the unemployment rate down to where it is now. And making...

ACOSTA: What if he doesn't get a handle on this policing issue?

LEGEND: I think there is more to do and - and I - I'm going to push the president to get more involved in criminal justice reform. I'm going to suggest some ideas that we think could help improve the situation.

But a lot of it has to do with state and local governments, as well. That's why we went to the statehouse in Texas. That's why we were in Sacramento with Gavin Newsome, because a lot of these laws are enacted on the state level. And so we need state by state change, as well.

It's important that the president is behind us, but it's also important that we get legislators and governors across the country to do it, as well.

ACOSTA: All right, if you change your mind about running for office, give CNN the scoop.

LEGEND: I will. I will.

ACOSTA: John Legend...

LEGEND: Don't hold your breathe.

ACOSTA: Don't hold your breathe. We - we might, just a little bit. But John Legend, thank you very much for your time.

LEGEND: Thank you.

ACOSTA: We appreciate it.

It was great talking with you.

LEGEND: Thank you.

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