The musician was joined by civil rights activist Van Jones and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a leader of the ongoing charge to reform issues like mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders that overwhelmingly impact minority communities.
Keys took to Capitol Hill after meeting with families in Baltimore, a city long scarred by mass incarceration and the drug wars. The musician invoked families who had seen their children as young as 15 be tried as adults, effectively ruining their lives; but she also recounted the story of one former inmate who turned his life around and became the first in his family to attend college.
“Nowhere in the rest of the western world are juveniles being tried as adults, or even worse, sentenced to life sentences without parole,” Keys said. “Is this who we are now? Is this who we want to be? These are just regular boys and girls, trying to find their way.”
In an interview with The Guardian after her speech, Keys also addressed the distrust between police and black communities, as evidenced by the protests and rioting in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in police custody.
“One of the most important things that I saw [in Baltimore] was people are guilty before they’re even proven innocent,” Keys said. “They’re not assumed to be innocent, they’re assumed to be guilty. Who would have trust when you’re attacked, and when you’re not given the opportunity to express yourself? When you’re just automatically judged that you’re there doing something wrong, whether you are or not.”
Keys has become an active advocate for social justice issues, launching the We Are Here movement — in conjunction with a song of the same name — last year. The group seeks to fight inequality, help reform the criminal justice system and bring awareness to women’s rights and environmental issues.
Her comments on Capitol Hill come a week after a Senate committee voted in favor of the the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The bill has the support of the White House and is the result of a rare bipartisan effort.