John Legend: It's not radical to dream of a more free America, or to protect our basic rights

With Roe v. Wade's fate unclear, progressive prosecutors will be more important now than ever to help protect our rights.

John Legend
Opinion contributor

I’ve been working on criminal justice reform for almost a decade, and I’m often branded as pursuing a “radical” agenda. 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.

On the contrary, the status quo is radical. America remains the most incarcerated nation on earth while simultaneously having intolerable levels of gun violence and overdose deaths.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s recall election of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, one news outlet claimed his defeat signaled trouble ahead to our movement, while others noted that San Francisco and California voters overall remain strongly supportive of criminal justice reform. Even Mary Jung, a leader of the recall, said, “We can have important criminal justice reforms and public safety for all.”

Justice requires progressive prosecutors  

On balance, victories across California and throughout the country provide clear evidence that the movement in support of criminal justice reform and reform-minded prosecutors remains strong and will continue to grow stronger. And these are no small victories because the future and freedoms of our country depend on them.   

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. Prosecutors play a critical role in enforcing our laws. Prosecutors make policy decisions about which crimes they are going to focus on and prosecute, whether to charge someone at all – and what to ask for in sentencing. They wield tremendous power, and whoever holds the office will either advance oppressive policies or serve the interests of justice.

Take the basic right to vote, one of our country’s most fundamental principles, which is now under attack. In the wake of the 2020 election, a flurry of conservative legislatures passed laws not only making it more difficult for people to vote but also criminalizing voter engagement. Georgia passed a bill that makes it illegal to give food or water to people waiting in line to vote.

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When progressives win elections, conservatives use mechanisms to undermine the result. After Boudin’s loss, conservative lawmakers in New York have introduced legislation creating a recall process for prosecutors there. Felony disenfranchisement laws are a longstanding tactic to exclude millions from our democracy.

In Shelby County, Tennessee, Pamela Moses was sentenced to an outlandish six years in prison merely for asking to restore her right to vote while she was on probation. Incredibly, District Attorney Amy Weirich blamed Moses for this horrific result – for requesting a jury trial, a right guaranteed by the Constitution, rather than taking the plea bargain Weirich offered her. 

Shelby County residents will have the opportunity to choose between Weirich and reform candidate Steve Mulroy in early August. 

Conservative attacks on our right to protest are another cause for concern. In the summer of 2020, millions of Americans exercised their right to protest after the murder of George Floyd. In the two years since that inspiring movement, a rash of bills that restrict those rights have popped up in states across the country.

Some of these new laws sound like something out of a dystopian novel: Oklahoma and Iowa, for example, passed laws that forgive drivers for hitting protesters in public streets.

Last week, voters in America’s heartland choose reform-minded Kimberly Graham to fill the seat of retiring prosecutor of Polk County, Iowa, John Sarcone. He's notorious for prosecuting a journalist and protesters during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020. Graham was inspired to run for office because she recognizes that “public safety and being safe is not just policing and prosecution.”

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Attacks on the right to bodily autonomy are pervasive and poised to get worse as the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision protecting a woman’s right to an abortion.

In Alabama, it is now a felony for a doctor to provide gender-affirming care for trans kids, subject to a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Women’s health professionals and abortion providers are bracing for the impact of trigger laws in 26 states that would restrict or criminalize abortion. If Roe is overturned, district attorneys’ offices across the country will suddenly be faced with the choice to punish pregnant people and medical providers – or the option to fight for people’s right to choose.

These choices happen even in blue states like California. Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes prosecuted women struggling with addiction who gave birth to stillborn babies, prompting California Attorney General Rob Bonta to issue a legal alert to prosecutors that people should not be prosecuted for pregnancy loss.  

Voters spoke: Fagundes lost to his challenger, and reform-minded Bonta won in a landslide statewide and is poised to keep his seat in November. 

Progressive prosecutors aren't radical. Our laws are.

It’s easy to feel hopeless about the state of our country when so many radical policies are becoming the norm. 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.

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While the policies that have been implemented vary by office, collectively these progressive prosecutors have made major headway in prioritizing homicides, hate crime and rape prosecutions; developing smart diversion programs that reduce incarceration and recidivism rates; treating young people who commit crimes as the youth they are; ending wrongful convictions and seeking out innocence; becoming more responsive to the needs of victims and impacted communities and fighting racism in policing. 

We also now have evidence that the reforms progressive prosecutors have made are not the cause of any increases in local crime rates.

It’s not radical to dream of a more free America. 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.

John Legend is an EGOT-winning singer, songwriter and activist. Follow him on Twitter:@JohnLegend