For John Legend, drug-related incarceration is an issue that hits close to home. As a teenager, he saw his mother struggle with depression and drug abuse; eventually, she landed in prison. The singer has previously spoken out against mass incarceration and campaigned for criminal justice reform with his #FREEAMERICA initiative. Here, he petitions President Obama on behalf of federal inmates.
First of all, I would like to thank you for your friendship and for your outstanding service to our country. I’m particularly grateful for the concrete steps your administration has taken to provide opportunities to tens of millions of young people and families who have been impacted by mass incarceration.
Your administration took bold steps to end juvenile solitary confinement, reduce the use of federal private prisons and move to “ban the box” for federal employees. While we hope the Trump administration and the 115th Congress will maintain this progress and continue to work in a bipartisan manner to reform our criminal justice system, it is unclear what their priorities will be and when families can expect justice. Before you leave office, I would like to add my voice to the more than 2 million Americans who have asked you to use your clemency and pardon powers to bring justice to the thousands of families of non-violent drug offenders who have waited far too long for Congress to act.
In 2014, you set out to reinvigorate our country’s approach to clemency. Your actions to commute the sentences of 944 individuals, including 324 life sentences, is unprecedented in the modern era. Nonetheless, more action is needed to dismantle the unjust policies of the past 40 years. An estimated 36,000 non-violent drug offenders housed in federal prisons have sought relief under your clemency initiative and it is unclear how many of the remaining cases will be reviewed before you leave. As the Surgeon General noted, drug addiction is not a moral failing but a chronic health issue deserving of our compassion. What is a moral failing, however, is the War on Drugs and America’s addiction to incarceration which has not increased safety but needlessly torn families apart.
“I urge you … to bring an end to the injustice that remains in our federal sentencing schemes.”
I urge you to consider issuing categorical commutations to bring an end to the injustice that remains in our federal sentencing schemes. For example, approximately 5,000 individuals are serving sentences based on prejudiced laws which punished drug crimes involving crack cocaine more severely than crimes involving powder cocaine. Rectifying these crack-powder disparities would not only correct the mistakes of the past, but could save taxpayers just over $150 million per year and keep with public sentiment about the over-incarceration and criminalization of drug crimes.
Overwhelmingly, voters in red and blue states voted to end the country’s reliance on incarceration for drug crimes and other low-level offenses. California voters approved Prop 57, which expands parole and time off for good behavior for nonviolent offenses, and Oklahoma voters approved measures to reclassify certain property offenses and drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Arkansas, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota made changes to their marijuana laws.
At the birth of our nation, the Founding Fathers entrusted the clemency responsibility to the President. Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution of the United States provides: “The President … shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”
Just as George W. Bush urged you to proactively address clemency on your way to your first inauguration in 2009, I am asking you to bring justice to thousands of families by granting as many clemencies as possible before you leave office.