John Legend Gives His All to End Mass Incarceration

John Legend participates in AOL's BUILD Speaker Series to discuss the film "Southern Rites" at AOL Studios on Monday, May 11,
John Legend participates in AOL's BUILD Speaker Series to discuss the film "Southern Rites" at AOL Studios on Monday, May 11, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Stepping onto the advocacy stage in 2012 after producing the documentary "The House I Live In", John Legend visited U.S. prisons, Portugal, and launched #FREEAMERICA, a multi-year culture campaign to change the national conversation about our country's "indecent" and "unconscionable" policies and transform America's criminal justice system.

In last week's article penned for TIME magazine, "Mass Incarceration Is Destroying America", Legend said, "We haven't always been this way: Just 40 years ago, our incarceration rates were much lower, and on par with our peer nations. Since then, however, our prison population has ballooned by about 700%. What happened four decades ago that led to such a steep climb? We launched the so-called War on Drugs."

Applauding President Obama's recent visit of a federal prison and his commutation of 46 low-level drug offenders as "steps" in the right direction, Legend went on to say, "Our state and local governments must follow the president's lead and transform our destructive 'War on Drugs' into the public-health campaign it always should have been."

Treating addiction and low-level drug possession in the public health system was courageouslyintroduced in Portugal in 2001. While Obama visited Oklahoma's federal penitentiary, Legend was conducting a different kind of tour at one of Portugal's correctional facilities.

"Their correctional conditions are the exact opposite of ours; they are humane and tranquil," he noted. "Some might be surprised to learn that Portugal has not fallen apart after 14 years of this humane, public-health-oriented approach. Quite the opposite, in fact: Portugal has seen drug-use rates, as well as drug-induced deaths, markedly decline."

One of the first superstar celebrities to hold up Portugal and all-drug decriminalization as a model for the direction of U.S. drug policies, Legend is moved to advocate for change by not only wanting to correct the grave injustices and over-policing of communities of color, but also, Legend is driven by having experienced his mother struggle with addiction. He plainly states what his family needed: "My mother didn't need punishment; she needed help. Criminalizing drug abuse only further shatters people and families that are already in pieces."

Mass incarceration destroys communities, families and individuals. While some reform is taking hold at local and state levels like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in Seattle, and President Obama's recent speeches and commutations, it is not enough.

John Legend called on ordinary people to speak up and step out to end mass incarceration, and says, "The 46 people whose sentences the president commuted last Monday are just a drop in an ocean of lives that have been torn apart by the War on Drugs and the era of mass incarceration. It's time to stop warring and start healing."

To get involved with Legend's #FREEAMERICA campaign, visit the website and follow onTwitter.

Melissa Franqui is the communications coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.