John Legend has become world famous for his chart-topping ballad "All of Me" and role in the Oscar-nominated musical "La La Land," but his visit to the Louisiana Capitol on Wednesday was serious business.
Legend, a 10-time Grammy winner, has set out on a campaign to end mass incarceration. Wednesday's tour stop: the state with the highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate, which also happens to be mulling criminal justice reform this year.
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"We can't tolerate a system that destroys so many lives and so many communities," Legend told the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing packed with curious onlookers hoping to snap a photo of the star guest. "Mass incarceration is ineffective, it's harmful and it's expensive."
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has called on lawmakers to prioritize this session a criminal justice revamp that aims to reduce the state's prison population. A task force studied the issue for more than a year before putting forth a series of recommendations backed by Edwards' administration.
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On Tuesday, just a day before Legend arrived to build buzz around the topic, a Senate committee scaled back the initial proposal to address concerns raised by some in the law enforcement community, who have said the state's effort to push the overhaul without further study could lead to dangerous unintended consequences.
Secretary of Corrections Jimmy Leblanc has said the compromise package will still accomplish at least 75 percent of the original proposal, but further changes could be made as it makes its way through the legislative pipeline. Still at issue an effort to possibly ease penalties for some long-serving violent offenders, which prosecutors oppose.
Legend encouraged the House panel to push for the more sweeping reforms originally sought. "I believe every person deserves a second chance," he said.
Legend told a brief autobiographical sketch to the legislators, including his own mother's history of drug abuse and incarceration.
His message to them: "I'm here to stand with you."
"I hope that you will be a part of the reason that Louisiana moves away from being the nation's leader in incarceration," Legend told them. "I hope that you will be able to help us build a better narrative – one that recognizes that mass incarceration doesn't make us safer but actually makes us all more vulnerable, it destroys communities, wastes resources, separates families and ruins lives."
Several committee members said that they agree with Legend's message and hope to pass legislation.
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"I'm all in: Criminal justice reform now," said Rep. Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna. "This is the time, this is the place and the momentum is with us."
But's unclear how much sway his star power will pull when put up against the state's powerful sheriffs and prosecutors.
After the hearing, Legend took part in a brainstorming session with like-minded legislators and advocates upstairs in the Governor's Office.
There, they explained further the hurdles they face.
District attorneys and sheriffs in Louisiana "carry a big stick," Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans explained.
"They are powerful," Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Ibera, stressed.
Legend suggested trying to run candidates against those who challenge the effort.
"We allow fear to often cloud our discussions about criminal justice," Legend said.