Musician John Legend leads panel discussion on civil rights, criminal justice

Musician John Legend leads panel discussion on civil rights, criminal justice


4/24/15 10:00 PM EDT

On the eve of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, lawmakers, politicos, academics and artists sat down for something different: a frank and wide-ranging discussion on civil rights and the criminal justice system.

Guests packed Washington’s Long View Gallery for “An Evening with John Legend,” an event hosted by POLITICO and co-moderated by Mike Allen, its chief White House correspondent, and Malika Saada Sar, the executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls.

Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder was in attendance, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and others.

Panelists acknowledged the seminal moment in the country’s history given the events of the past year, including the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.

“We could be, if we do this well, and collectively, on the cusp of change,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, noting that criminal justice system reform is an “enormous priority” for President Barack Obama’s final two years in office.

Legend praised bipartisan progress but said there is much more to be done. It should not just be a fiscal matter for states, he said.

“You can’t cost-cut your way to better schools and pre-K for our kids and better counseling in the schools,” said the award-winning musician, who last week launched his Free America Campaign, which calls for the end of mass incarceration.

But it’s not just a matter of dealing with schools, he said. Communities have to be taken into account as well, he added.

“As soon as [kids] slip through the cracks,” Legend said, all compassion “melts away, and we turn them into villains, we lock them up for a long time.”

Also in attendance was Marc Levin, the founder of Right on Crime, a criminal justice reform initiative aimed at conservatives. Levin touted the importance of states like Georgia, whose Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has worked to reform mandatory minimum sentencing.

Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, said the country cannot make progress unless it confronts a narrative of “anger and fear” and of “racial difference.”

“We have to bear witness,” Stevenson said. “We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

Michelle Alexander, a panelist and author of “The New Jim Crow,” said that “many of the old forms of discrimination of the Jim Crow era are legal again once you’re labeled a felon.”

Legend said he thought there would be action on the issues, but with a caveat.

“I doubt I will be satisfied,” he added.

Following the event, Legend serenaded the crowd with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” along with his own hits “Ordinary People” and “All of Me.”?

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