Music Superstar John Legend Joins Ohio Rally for Justice Reform

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John Legend

John Legend by Pop! Tech via Flickr

Some of the country’s most well-known “celebrity” advocates for criminal justice reform, including singer John Legend, are using their star power to persuade Ohio voters to support a referendum aimed at helping reduce the barriers faced by former inmates to finding employment and re-integrating into civil society.

At a rally Sunday in Norwood, Ohio, reported by WCPO, Legend said passage of the referendum, known as Issue 1,  “will save lives, families, and strengthen our communities.”

Issue 1 would amend the state constitution to reduce penalties for using and possessing drugs like heroin, meth and cocaine. Those charges would become misdemeanors and carry no prison time.

“Every day people are struggling from the cycle of addiction,” Legend said. “They’re in and out of incarceration, and they’re getting worse, not better, while their communities and families continue to suffer.

Legend said the focus should be shifted from incarceration to treatment.

“People with addiction don’t need to be warehoused behind bars with their problems ignored. They need treatment. They need help,” Legend said.  “We’ve tried the option of locking people up. It hasn’t solved the opioid epidemic. It hasn’t solved our overdose crisis.

Another well-known supporter is Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” which chronicled the high U.S. prison population and its disproportionate effect on African Americans.

“Issue 1 will help to remove the barriers to work for Ohioans with a drug conviction,” Alexander says, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports.

Ohioan Piper Kerman, who wrote “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison has also added her name to the list of supporters.

Opponents, who have raised considerably less money, are relying on local politicians from both parties to carry their message: judges, prosecutors, coroners and sheriffs. “This is major criminal justice policy being locked into the constitution,” said Paul Pfeifer, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice and Republican lawmaker who now leads the Ohio Judicial Conference. “That’s just the wrong place to do things.”

Supporters of Issue 1 say they have little faith in the GOP-controlled legislature’s political will to make meaningful change.

Issue 1 would reduce penalties for some drug offenses, allow prisoners to reduce their time behind bars by up to 25 percent for completing rehabilitative, work or educational programs, and prohibit prison time as a penalty for probation violations that are not new crimes.

It also would allow those previously convicted of felony drug possession to ask a court to have those charges reduced to misdemeanors, and allocate any money saved from sending fewer people to prison to drug treatment (70 percent), trauma care for crime survivors (15 percent) and local governments to adjust to new rules (15 percent.)

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