How to Fix the Criminal (In)Justice System: With John Legend and Patrisse Cullors

Mehdi Hasan talks criminal justice with two prominent activists in Los Angeles.

John Legend, left, in conversation with Patrisse Cullors and Mehdi Hasan during a live taping of the Deconstructed podcast on Feb. 10, 2020. Photo: Jessica Pons for The Intercept

Subscribe to the Deconstructed podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Radio Public, and other platforms. New to podcasting? Click here.


The United States has the biggest prison population of any country on the planet. The crime rate is down, but the incarceration rate continues to soar. Black men are six times as likely to be locked up as white men. With the 2020 presidential election around the corner, what hope is there for fixing the criminal justice system? For reforming or even abolishing prison? For tackling the mental health crisis behind bars?

Those were the topics of discussion at a live taping of the Deconstructed podcast on Monday night at the Writer’s Guild Theater in Los Angeles. Host Mehdi Hasan was joined by John Legend, musician, activist, philanthropist, and founder of FREEAMERICA, and Patrisse Cullors, artist, organizer, author, and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

The conversation ranged from criminal justice reform to President Donald Trump and the First Step Act to the upcoming Los Angeles district attorney election, in which Legend and Cullors have been heavily involved.

Deconstructed interviews a variety of guests who share their views in order to educate and inform our listeners on the most pressing issues of the day and on the democratic process. Our guests’ views on the issues, and how elected officials and candidates approach those issues, do not reflect the views of First Look Media Works.


Patrisse Cullors, right, in conversation with John Legend and Mehdi Hasan, not pictured, on the criminal justice system in the United States.

Photo: Jessica Pons for The Intercept

Medhi Hasan: Good evening, I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to a very special edition of Deconstructed here in L.A., California in front of a live audience at the Writers Guild Theater.


Today, we’re talking about an issue of huge importance, literally of life and death, which in the past didn’t get that much attention, but thankfully recently has been going up and up the political agenda. I’m talking, of course, about criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, police brutality, institutional racism, dealing with a prison system which locks up more people than any other country on Earth, that incarcerates black men at six times the rate as white men. And yes, impeachment and Iowa and Iran have dominated the news headlines in recent weeks and the presidential election will undoubtedly occupy our attention for the rest of this year. But we cannot afford to ignore this huge issue. This festering sore in our midst.

So that’s what we’re here in LA to discuss tonight with two very special guests. My first guest is an artist and organizer, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter global network and the author of The New York Times bestseller “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.” A native of LA, she’s currently leading “Yes on R,” a ballot initiative aimed at reforming the LA County prison system that will be voted on in next month’s primary election. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome and make some noise for Patrisse Cullors.


My next guest really needs no introduction but I’m gonna try. He’s a world famous, multi-award winning artist and musician, Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Tonys. He’s won them all. But he’s also an activist, a philanthropist, the founder of Free America, a campaign to transform the U.S. criminal justice system by trying to end mass incarceration. And one last thing, he was also chosen by People Magazine to be the sexiest man alive in November 2019. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for the legendary John Legend.


MH: Patrisse, John, thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed. John, let me start with you. You’re best known of course, for your music, a lot of high profile —

John Legend: For my sexiness, you mean.

MH: Your sexiness, sexiness and music. You pick. A lot of less sexy but high profile musicians and artists like to throw their weight, their fame, their reputation, their name behind good causes, behind campaigns, charities, philanthropy, some of them tend to go for the fashionable stuff, the sexy stuff, if you will. What made you get involved with, put your wealth and fame behind this rather what some people might say unfashionable unsexy cause of criminal justice reform going into prisons, helping ex-convicts turn around their lives? How did it all begin?

JL: Well, part of it was through personal connection. And I think if you talk to any person of color in this country, all of us have relatives who have been through either the prison or jail system all of us have had some level of interaction with the criminal justice system, with law enforcement. And so we see on a very personal level how it affects our families, our communities and we’ve, I think a lot of us, and I, personally was guilty of this kind of looked at it more as a personal responsibility issue. Because, you know, I did the right things. I didn’t, I didn’t, you know, get caught up in the criminal justice system. But I had friends in my community that did, neighbors of mine that did, family members of mine that did and at the time, you’re thinking, “Oh, they messed up, they did something wrong, and they deserved it. This is how we punish people for doing something wrong. They deserve to go to prison for whatever the allotted time is that’s been legislated by our lawmakers.” We assume that that’s how things are just supposed to work. And there’s kind of a, almost a fatalism attached to that.

But when you realize that it doesn’t have to be this way, then you start to think, “Well, how do we get here? How do we get off this path and change courses to have a more humane system?” So, I started reading I started reading Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” and Brian Stevens’ book, “Just Mercy.” I read other writers who talked about how we got to this place. I realized after reading that we were the most incarcerated country in the world. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that as I was, you know, just going through life being pretty politically engaged and pretty politically aware, getting involved in, you know, Senate elections and presidential elections and endorsing candidates. I was going through life —

MH: To be fair, a lot of Americans don’t know that.

JL: Yeah, I was going through life not knowing this and I won an Oscar for Glory. We wrote this song for Selma and Common and I got up on stage and I had just been reading Michelle’s book. And I got up there and said — In honor of Dr. King and the struggle that he fought for, that so many people after him and before him have fought for, I want to talk about one of the critical civil rights issues of our time when it came to justice and equality and freedom in America, which was the fact that we’ve decimated so many communities and families due to locking so many people up in this country, and we do it way more than everybody else. We have, like 3% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. So I got up on stage, when I accepted the award for Glory and said, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world and we need to do something about it. And folks who are marching with our song, we’re with you.”

And so, I organized my team around thinking about this issue and saying, “We need to do something about it. Let’s engage. Let’s listen. Let’s learn. Let’s talk to experts. Let’s go to prisons and jails and talk to the folks who are there, talk to folks who have come back home afterwards, talk to all kinds of stakeholders and see what we can do to make a difference.” And so we’ve started Free America and embarked on this journey of listening, learning about it. And I know it’s not the most fashionable cause for celebrities, it’s not the safest cause for celebrities because there are enemies that are pretty well organized enemies of reform. But for me, it was personal. And it was worth it to get involved in this issue because we want to see big change. And we know how impactful it is.

MH: You say it’s personal. If you don’t mind me mentioning this in 2015, you wrote very movingly about your mother, who was in prison and you talked about how drug addiction tore apart her life. And you said, “My mother didn’t need punishment. She needed help.”

JL: Yeah, she was. She never went to an actual prison, but she went to jail locally in our hometown, and this was all due to her drug addiction problems at the time. This is when we were pretty young. And my parents had recently gotten divorced and she had gone into a depression after her mother died. And this caused her to kind of spiral into a place where she started using drugs to self medicate. And so many of us know stories of people like that. So many of us have family members and friends that descend into that same place. Some of it’s because they were prescribed painkillers by the doctor and then they became addicted to opiates. Whatever the reason is, this is a health issue. People need help, and we don’t need to put them in jail or prison.

MH: Patrisse, how did you end up here as this globally renowned, organizer, activist, what led you to this point where you’re campaigning against prison violence, against police brutality literally 24/7?

Patrisse Cullors: I am. Well, I just want to say thank you so much to everybody who is here tonight. Thank you, John. Thank you, Mehdi for this critical conversation. I think Los Angeles is the way Selma was to the Voting Rights Act, Los Angeles is to criminal justice reform. What we do here in this county matters not just here, it matters nationwide. And I argue it matters globally. And so I really enter this work as a person who also grew up with family cycling in and out of the jail system and the prison system. And just for clarifying purpose for our audience, a jail and a prison are two different things. A jail is where people go to for trial, people are usually sent there and held there, even if they are innocent. And then it’s the place where they often are convicted and then set to prison where they do their sentence.

And so here in Los Angeles County, we actually have the largest jailer in the world and our county has the largest jail department, largest police department largest sheriff’s department, and what I witnessed growing up as a child was over incarceration, what I witnessed was police brutality. And I knew that our communities didn’t deserve it. I felt it in my heart. I felt it in my spirit. And I wanted to do something about it. And so as I became politicized, as I became informed about the issue at the local level, I showed up, and I started to try to figure out how do I organize specifically around the issues of policing and jailing.

MH: So right now, I mean, you’re best known perhaps globally in your role in Black Lives Matter. Right now, though, you’re spearheading the “Yes On R” campaign, there’s a big vote on it next month. Explain to our audience both here in the hall and at home listening around the country and around the world. What is that campaign? Why does it matter so much?

PC: Sure, and John, thank you for being an early endorser, like John came on board when we were gathering signatures for a ballot measure. For the audience, if you’ve never worked on the ballot measure, it costs a lot of money to change the laws. It takes a lot of people power to change the laws and it makes sense why rich people are able to stay in power. That is one of my biggest takeaways and this vote, “Yes On R” is a vote for the people. It’s a vote that it really is about 10 years of organizing that’s lifted us to this moment. So Measure R is going to do two things. One, it’s going to hold the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department accountable for corruption. And number two, it’s going to create a pathway for adequate mental health care in Los Angeles County.

We have the largest mentally ill population inside our jail system making the Los Angeles jail system, the largest mental health provider. Do you all hear that? Our county jail is the largest mental health provider which means that most of those people are being overmedicated, abused. They’re being cycled in and out of the streets and back into prisons, back into jails, back into psyche ERs. They’re not receiving the treatment that they deserve.

MH: Patrisse, it’s funny, you mentioned the kind of rich people staying in power and how hard it is to change the law. There’s a poll done by the ACLU not too long ago, which found 91% of Americans want to see the criminal justice system fixed, 71% of Americans, including 52% of Trump supporters, bless them, say it is important to reduce the prison population in this country. Two out of three Americans agree that black people are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. So you have all this public opinion in favor of change, reform, and yet, it’s taken so long to get to a point where we’re actually having these ballot initiatives, measures, changing of law at the federal level.

PC: Absolutely. Well, first of all, incarceration is a failed experiment. We have to remember this is an experiment. This has not always been the case in our country or in the world. And so what we’ve seen over the last 30 years is a growth in the prison population, a growth in the jail population. And now what you’re seeing is people saying, “This isn’t solving crime. This isn’t keeping us more safe. In fact, people are coming home from jails and prisons, and their families are completely up-ended. There’s so much chaos.” And so what people are yearning for in this country is a new way of relating to each other, a new way of being together and the current criminal justice system tears our families apart.

MH: John, you’ve been involved in some actual successful state-led efforts, local efforts to turn things around, for example, you were involved in Louisiana in getting Amendment Two passed which got rid of anti-black Jim Crow jury laws. You backed Amendment Four in Florida, which restored or tried to restore voting rights to former felons. The Republicans are trying to stop that from happening.

JL: Yeah.

MH: What was your message when you were fighting those campaigns? How did you think you know what, what’s the best way to cut through to the average voter when I say the average voter I mean, the white voter?

JL:  Well, it’s amazing, it’s amazing what happened in Florida. It’s such a hopeful story because it makes you feel like we can do a lot of major things together if we come together. What happened is the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led by this wonderful man named Desmond Meade, he had been in prison for quite a long time. But he came out ready to lead. He came out, you know, ready to go to law school, all these other things. But as he found out, and as everyone finds out that comes out of prison, particularly with felony convictions, society throws up all these additional barriers to you reintegrating, when, you know, if we were doing what was most sensible and most just and most cost effective, we would all want everybody that came out of prison to never have to go back. We would all want that to be a high priority. But we do things that are backwards when it comes to that. We make it harder for them to get housing, we make it harder for them to get a job, and we make it harder for them to vote.

And so one of the issues that he decided to focus on was, let’s restore the right to vote for all these folks who had felony convictions in Florida. Florida was one of only three states in America where a lifetime ban was in place on folks who had felony convictions being able to vote. So the only way they would get to vote was they had to affirmatively petition the governor to relax this ban. So, individually, they’d have to do that and it almost never happened. So you had over a million people in Florida who could not vote. And the threshold to pass a ballot initiative in Florida is 60%. So, just think of how evenly divided Florida always is. You know, we’re always waiting, you know, on election night to see who wins those electoral votes. And you know, it’s come down to 500 votes when Al Gore lost, you know, so you’ve seen how evenly divided that state is and how frustrating Florida politics can be. But they were able to in a bipartisan coalition go to the people of Florida and say, “These folks deserve redemption. They deserve a second chance. They deserve to get reintegrated back into society by voting,” and it passed with over 60%.

MH: Even Republicans came out —

JL: Even Republicans voted for it because in that same election, the Republicans won the Senate and they won the gubernatorial election. So folks were voting for it that were voting for Republicans.

MH: But then you have this problem where they won the gubernatorial race and the governor is now trying to, has done everything you can to stop this referendum, this ballot from being implemented. When you look at Florida, there’s pushback. And when you look at for example, the cash bail system in this country which is such an outrage, anti-poor, anti-black, discriminatory, two out of three people in US county jails are there pre-trial, pre-any kind of courtroom conviction. Astonishing statistic. And yet in New York, you have a bail reform law which passes comes into effect is immediately attacked. That’s the cause of rising crime. You’re letting criminals out. In California, I believe, where they had the bail, there’s a referendum I believe, later this year, because the bail bonds industry managed to get it delayed. So do you feel sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back when it comes to criminal justice reform?

JL: I feel like, I feel like we’re winning right now. I feel like even in Florida, if you look at how the law’s being applied, the courts and there are a lot of friendly courts that are advocating for voters rights in the state of Florida, they’re able to say you’ve served the body of your sentence. And some of these fines and fees are extraneous to your actual sentence and so we’re able to certify that you’re eligible to vote. So, there are a lot of people that won’t even be excluded because of this new fines and fees regulation, because they can get a court to tell them that that’s not part of their proper sentence, because you can see how you can add all kinds of fees and things on top of things that aren’t really in the body of someone’s sentence and they’ve served their time and they should be allowed to vote.

So, we’re dealing with it. We’re helping to raise money to advocate on behalf of folks who are affected by the law. And I think we took several steps forward and maybe a step or two back. But I think, overall, it’s been a net positive. A lot of people will have their voting rights restored and will be able to vote in this year’s election in Florida. And what happens in New York and what happens all around the country, there are folks who have an investment in the status quo. Sometimes it’s the police unions. Sometimes it’s the bail bondsman. Sometimes it’s some of these prosecutor associations. And they all like the status quo where we punish more, we give police all the power with very little accountability. They want that system to be the system that rules the day, but folks are coming out, legislators who are being bold and saying we need to be smarter on crime and not tougher on crime, and they’re not letting fear stop them from doing what’s right.

MH: Patrisse, do you agree with John that A, do you agree that we’re winning and B, take California, for example there is going to be this vote later this year on the bail issue, you’re going to win that?

PC: I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I think it depends on how you understand winning. I believe that we’re building political power and that to me is winning. We may have moments where the right lashes out on us. That’s going to happen. That’s their job. Their job is to try to destroy the wins and gains that we’ve gotten. But we’re prepared for that. And so part of what it’s important, especially for the audience, for you to understand, the moment we win things, in that moment they’re waiting to fight back. And that is not to me unsuccessful that means that we are winning. That means that we’re pissing people off and we should be. And so I think, you know, we’ve already gotten a threatening message from our local sheriff and Measure R. He tweeted about it. And I was like, good, you’re noticing.

And if we were worried about, if we stayed worried about being attacked, like, we would not be out of slavery. We would not be out of a lot of really disturbing places we’ve been at in this country. And so, we are absolutely building the power of the people most marginalized. And that to me, is success.

MH: Just you mentioned, you mentioned slavery, and I’m reminded, John, you mentioned your speech as well at the Oscars in that speech. You said there are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850 which is astonishing. Shocking statistic. What was the reaction to that from your fellow artists, people who — You’re saying you were digging into this and reading about it and you know, reading “The New Jim Crow,” what was the reaction when you say something like that on the Oscars stage?

JL: I’ll never forget my manager, her mother. She’s an older white lady in Philadelphia, and she’s a liberal woman. And she, you know, she was just astonished that I said what I said on stage and was like, “What is John smoking, like?” She’s like, I can’t believe he said these stats, that can’t be true. And I think a lot of Americans just really didn’t know it was true. And I took a little bit of heat for saying it, but I felt vindicated because I knew I was telling the truth. And I wanted to shock people and make them say, we need to make some change happen. And I followed it up with action. I spent the last several years following it up with action, and really working on this issue and trying to solve it. And speaking about these issues in front of crowds like this all around the country, for years now.

MH: Just briefly, what kind of things has Free America done?

JL: So a lot of it, some of it’s been on the political side, and that’s kind of separate from our proper nonprofit role. So we had to separate those things when we were advocating for candidates or things of that nature. So I personally do that. But we have been out there creating awareness. We’ve been saying, these are the issues that are most important. Let’s inform people about the role of district attorneys, for instance. We’ve gotten involved in — I personally have endorsed the district attorney candidates, but also as Free America, we’ve been educating the public on, this is what a DA does, and this is why you should care about your DA election. Because a lot of people aren’t aware of the fact that so many of the sentencing decisions, the choice of what to charge, the choice of what kind of bail to pursue, all these decisions are made by unaccountable prosecutors. So they’re unaccountable because we don’t hold them accountable. And if we do, if we pay attention, we vote and we and we create demand for more progressive prosecutors, we get them and I personally endorsed people like Kim Fox in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, all of whom are making real changes to change the way the policies work in those cities.

MH: So, I want to come back and talk about this in a moment, about the progressive prosecutors, about the importance of elections and politics. We’ve got a big election coming up naturally, in November. Before I do, Patrisse, John mentioned like, you know, nice, liberal white lady says the statistics can’t be true. Racism, when we talk about racism, one of the words we hear before the word racism is institutional racism. I just want you to explain to our audience, when you say the criminal justice system is institutionally racist, what do we mean by that?

PC: Well, I mean that, I mean, the entire country is racist. It’s founded on racism. America, the concept, the way it’s been produced, what it’s created is an anti-black, racist country. And so when we’re talking about the criminal justice system. We’re talking about a system that has relied on using that anti-black racism to punish people and to use punishment as a way to talk about mass incarceration. And so our system is a system that has completely decimated communities. And it’s been specifically communities of color. In Los Angeles. County, 80% of the jail population is people of color, 50% are Latino, 40% are black — 30% are black. And so I think it’s been really important to, it’s been important in the last few years to challenge this idea that this isn’t a racist country, or that we don’t have a racist president, even though in one breath he’ll say something racist, in the next breath and say, I’m not racist. And so we have to keep sort of grounding down in what is racism, how it impacts institutions and how it impacts the people that are part of those institutions.

MH: So you mentioned the president, what do you make of President Trump trying to portray himself as a champion of criminal justice reform. Last week, you had the Super Bowl ad where we saw Alice Johnson, grandmother who was serving a life sentence for selling crack freed by Trump. And also in a State of the Union speech, he said, “Everybody said the criminal justice reform couldn’t be done. But I got it done.” Referring to the First Step Act that he did sign. What’s your response when you hear him or Republicans say those are the facts?

PC: I think we have to be really careful about what we’re categorizing as criminal justice reform. And so if we look at the immigrant rights movement, and this call to abolish ICE and detention centers, that is a huge part of the criminal justice system. And so if we are only talking about one part of that system, if we’re only lifting up one individual, if we’re only talking about one single act that isn’t actually progressive, that isn’t actually reform. And so, my challenge to 45 and my challenge to people who are saying he is, you know, being the criminal justice reform president is that that is untrue.

If he is at the very same time holding babies in detention centers, that is not criminal justice reform. And I think what he’s doing, he’s an effective media person, what he’s doing is he’s framing black people as his way to move us to vote for him. And so he’s really touting us. And so black folks in the audience and listeners, be careful. That is you being used. That is not authentic engagement.

JL: And just to just to tie another bow around it, and maybe move us to the prosecutor conversation. His Department of Justice has a whole slew of prosecutors and they make discretionary decisions about how they pursue certain crimes and how to implement these laws that are put into place. They are even advocating for people who were freed by the First Step Act to get back in prison. So they’re, Bill Barr is an extremely punitive, very far right attorney general. So when he’s implementing policy, he’s not only undermining the law, he’s making it worse than it was prior, you know, the status quo, is worse than the status quo.

MH: So listening to you, John, can I assume that when you say all this stuff, you disagree with Kim Kardashian West, who has praised Donald Trump for his “passion” on criminal justice reform and says it was really remarkable to see how committed he is to all of this?

JL: I think he has a passion for self-aggrandizement. I think he has a passion for trying to cheaply win black votes. I think he has a passion for doing whatever helps Donald Trump. I think he has no passion for actual justice and he has a passion for undermining the FBI if they’re investigating him as well. I think all of his motivations are selfish and self-serving, and he has no concern for the ordinary lives of ordinary folks.

MH: He also has a passion this week you saw, he has a passion for the death penalty. So this week, the week after he said he was a criminal justice reformer. He comes out of the White House and says he wants to bring in the death penalty to drug dealers —

JL: He supports what the Filipino president is doing there and other oppressive regimes around the world are doing. He believes we should be more punitive, more destructive.

MH: Which is scary because The Intercept, my colleagues, Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith did an amazing series, which I urge you all to check out “Counting the Condemned,” where they put together basically a database of everyone who was sentenced to death since 1976. And one of the interesting statistics is in recent years, it’s gone down, the number of people sent us to death. And this is worry now again, one step forward, two steps back with this president and with this party, are we going to see now a new urge for the death penalty?

PC: Well, that’s why this is a critical conversation around district attorneys. Are we ready to go there?

MH: Yes, let’s go there.

PC: Raise your hand if you know what your district attorney does.

MH: Less than half the crowd?

PC: Less than half but probably better than it used to be five years ago because I would swear to you five years ago, no one would know. I didn’t know what our district attorney did.

MH: I only know from watching Good Wife. I’ll be honest. I’m British, that’s my excuse.

PC: The district attorney seat is probably the most powerful seat in your county. It’s the person who can tell you if you’re going to spend no time in jail, more time in jail, the rest of your life in jail, get the death penalty. And so, my big thing when 2016 happened, I was like, “You know what? I’m not really trying to mess with 45 but what I can do is be home and change the system at home.” And what I’ve encouraged people wherever I go is look at your local system. If we have a strong county, that means we have a strong state, that means we have a strong nation. And if we’re living in the resistance state, supposedly, then that we have to force our counties in this resistance state to also be resistance counties. So the district attorney that we have right now DA Jackie Lacey — Boo.

[Crows boos.]

PC: I didn’t even have to prompt you. That means we’ve done a good job for the last two years, has sent the largest number of people to death than any other county in the country. She claims that she is for people with mental illness, but she has refused to create a true department that’s really helping people with mental illness. She was against Prop 47, against Prop 57 all propositions that were for criminal justice reform, and she’s ultimately turned her back against the community. And so we’re calling for a new district attorney and we’re lucky in Los Angeles because we actually have two other people who are running against her.

MH: So, on that note, John, let me bring you into this conversation. You’re backing, you held an event with him last week I believe, George Gascón who is running.

JL: That’s correct.

MH: He’s a former San Francisco DA, former police officer. What do you say to people who say isn’t it weird that the incumbent Jackie Lacey is a black woman, and the challenger is a white guy and yet on criminal justice reform, this is the person to get behind?

JL: Well, I think it matters what they stand for. Identity isn’t going to be the sole determinant of what their policies are going to be. And Gascón has been a leader when progressive district attorneys, progressive prosecutors, we had a convening of them in New York, years ago when we first started our campaign, and we could fit them on a little, a little table at the Soho House in a little side room at the Soho House in New York, when we met with him, and he was one of the leaders of that group. And as we’ve started to help get more elected over the years, we’ve seen those ranks grow. But he’s been a leader before a lot of other people were, and he was doing this in San Francisco and helping lead what happened in California as well through the work he was doing. And he’s been at the forefront of a lot of the reforms that we want to see. And so we think he’s the best person for the job that’s running. And so that’s why we support him.

MH: It’s interesting Patrisse, that he’s a former cop himself. And yet the police unions both in San Francisco and in LA have vehemently opposed to his candidacy.

PC: Good sign.

JL: Honestly, whatever the police unions are for, be against, whatever they’re against be for. It almost works every time.

MH: That’s good advice on that on the DAs race, not that I’m endorsing anyone. But I will ask this apart from the DAs race, obviously very important and you very eloquently Patrisse laid out how important it is, county level, resistance counties. Obviously, it’s equally and some might argue more important, less important, what happens in November, the presidential race? Is there a candidate that you fancy on criminal justice reform? I know that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both endorsed the “Yes on R” campaign. Is there someone you think is going to be the president who can help turn around this supertanker on criminal justice reform, lead from the top?

PC: Well, I do want to talk about the DA race and the presidential race. I’m going to be very New York Times. I’m actually endorsing both George Gascon and Rachel Rossi. I think we need all hands on deck to get rid of Jackie Lacey. And depending on who gets into the office, I do think we need to be training a new system inside of Los Angeles because that office is so corrupt, and we need new people to come in and change it. And so I’m excited about the both of them. I’m ready to really, you know, get people involved. So I’ll be making — This is my official announcement tonight, but I’ll be making one tomorrow morning as well. In relationship to the presidential candidates, you know, I’m going back and forth between Warren and Sanders. I’ve had great conversations with both of them. I think that they would both be excellent presidents of the United States, I think, you know, I want to beat Trump. I, with my whole heart and soul want to beat Trump. And so I also want to beat Biden, I just want to be really clear with this audience.

MH: I mean, I think that’s almost done.

PC: Which shows you, which shows you where the country is at. And so you know, those are the two candidates that I’m really interested in and I’m having the most conversations with.

JL: And I think it’s important for us to think about this holistically because I’ve endorsed Senator Warren for the Democratic nomination, but I didn’t do it on one issue. It wasn’t just because of criminal justice. It was a holistic judgment based on who I thought would be the best president.

MH: Have you been impressed? Have you been excited about the fact that candidates are taking this issue?

JL: Yes. And I think it’s because of people like Patrisse, people like me, all of us in this room that are pushing our candidates. Even you saw this with Hillary, even in 2016, like Black Lives Matter folks were pushing her and she responded. And I think she responded well to a lot the critiques she was getting about some of the things she had said back in the tough on crime era of the Democratic Party of, you know, when her husband was president, and I think she was getting pushed, and it was a healthy push that we were giving her and so I think all of us no matter who the candidate is, have to keep pushing them and telling them that they’re responsible and accountable to us. And they need to listen to us and they need to be afraid of pissing us off. So whoever this candidate is, but we also have to be smart and realize that Gascón is going to affect, or whoever the DA is going to affect more about what’s happening in Los Angeles when it comes to criminal justice than any president ever will, okay? You have to be very aware of that. So you have a multi-pronged strategy. You can’t just be thinking about who your president’s going to be, or even who’s going to represent us in Washington. We have to be thinking about who’s running this city, running this county and who’s up in the statehouse in Sacramento?

MH: It’s a very good point. And Patrisse I would say, when I was prepping for this, I was thinking of asking lots of questions about Joe Biden. But I think we may not have to worry about Joe Biden for very much longer. In fact, when this airs New Hampshire will already have happened. But you know who else is running and is now zooming up the polls, it’s a  man named Michael Bloomberg. And interestingly, Michael Bloomberg was the Republican mayor of New York. And here’s what’s interesting when he announced his campaign, he said I’m really sorry about you know, what I did, the stop and frisk and maybe went too far and no one told me at the time and I was asleep or whatever it was. What’s so interesting, on the one hand, it’s kind of bad that he’s so cynical that he waited all these years to run for president to say, I got this wrong. On the other hand, it’s kind of cool that he felt he had to say that before he could enter the Democratic race.

PC: Absolutely. There is a growing movement that has been bubbling up for a decade, that is challenging all of the elected officials that decided to lock up people like my brother, people like my father, the dozens of community members and family members who were children, literally. And so these candidates feel accountable and that is because of us. That is because of our movement. And for me, and you know, part of what happened during the eight years of the Obama administration is people felt like, “Okay, we got our president, we’re good.” And that is the worst thing for you to do when you’re part of democracy. We need to be in the democracy. This is what that looks like. It’s why in 2016 when 45 got elected, everybody was like, “Oh shit,” like, people got comfortable.

MH: I love that you don’t say his name. That’s kind of cool. I’m gonna borrow that now, 45.

PC: I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

MH: Just before we end this, the presidential part of this discussion, I’m just gonna say a name and you can both respond: Pete Buttigieg.

[Crowd boos.]

MH: I didn’t ask the audience to respond. Who wants to go first?

JL: I honestly don’t know that much about him. You know, he was the mayor of a small city and I truly don’t know that much about him. I’ve not shat on any Democratic candidates that may be our nominee that I’m going to have to go out and, and knock on doors for. I just am not going to do it. So I want all of us as voters to push our candidates to be the best candidates they can be and whenever we have a nominee, we need to keep pushing them. But we also need to be clear that we need to win the White House.

MH: And if the presidential nominee wins the election and rings John Legend, the morning after their election victory, or the morning after the inauguration says, “If I have to do one thing, I only have space to do one thing on criminal justice, what should I lead with? What’s the first thing I should do?

JL: Well, I don’t know, I’d have to come up with, I would do a lot of thinking and say, here’s a criminal justice agenda that we would really get behind. But again, I really believe that so much of these decisions that are impactful are going to be the ones we’re getting involved in LA, in Florida, in New York, all these states and local areas, control so much of the system. Ten percent of our prison system is the federal prison system. So it’s a tiny portion of what’s happening in the country. The First Step Act, you know, Trump was very upset that we didn’t talk about him at that event I did with NBC—

MH: I believe he called you boring John Legend.

JL: He called me a boring singer —

MH: With a filthy-mouthed wife.

JL: With a filthy-mouthed wife. He was so mad. He was so mad that we didn’t talk about him, but we didn’t talk about it because it’s not that big of a deal. And it didn’t impact that many people and then his Justice Department was undermining it as it was getting implemented. So it’s just, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to all the other things we need to get done.

MH: I love that the master of the insult for you is boring John Legend. That’s the best he could come up with on Twitter on Sunday night.

JL: My wife agrees that I’m pretty boring.

MH: Patrisse one thing we haven’t talked about tonight, very briefly, I do want to get your take on it, which is something that something that the Democratic Party and even progressive prosecutors haven’t touched yet which is prison abolition, the prison abolition movement. It sounds so crazy radical when you tell someone who doesn’t follow. You want to get rid of prisons, just briefly tell us what the case is.

PC: Sure, yes, I am a prison abolitionist. I believe in — And really what that means is, prison abolition, yes, well, it means getting rid of policing and prisons as we know it. It’s actually a call for our imagination. It’s a call to imagine something really radically different, a call to imagine a different way of being in relationship with each other and a different way of dealing with harm and violence in our communities. And so, for me, I’ve been an abolitionist for almost 15 years, it feels really natural to me. I’m so glad that it’s finally getting some sort of like popularization. But it’s a call to have a true conversation about what we’ve invested in. We’ve invested in policing and imprisoning people who are mostly homeless, who are mostly drug dependent, who are mostly mentally ill, who are suffering, and how can we actually attribute that to a healthy system.

MH: But what would you say to people who — I’m sure you get this all the time —

PC: All the time. The rapists and the murderers.

MH: We’re all fine with with letting out non-violent —

PC: Absolutely.

MH: What do you do with the serial killers and the rapists?

PC: So what I say is let’s not start there. It’s actually not, it’s actually a right wing conversation to start there. Because we can have that conversation.

MH: Start with the majority.

PC: Yes, let’s start with the 80% of people who are locked up in our jails and prisons who actually deserve health, dignity and humanity. And then no abolitionist is saying release the 1.8 million people out of jails and prisons today. That’s not what’s being said. What’s being said is let’s actually reinvest our dollars, our resources and our spirits to something different.

JL: Absolutely. And we have just accepted the status quo for so long. It just feels like it’s the natural order, like we just assume everything that someone does wrong means they should go to a prison or jail. Why is that the only solution we have to anything? Why is that? It’s just like our gun issue. Everyone’s like, “Oh, we just need more guns because other people have guns.” It’s like, it’s just this destructive cycle —

MH: You had that quite interesting intervention back in September when Felicity Huffman from Desperate Housewives was sent to prison for the college admissions scandal.

JL: Yeah.

MH: And a lot of people were like what about all these black women who go to prison for longer? And you said —

JL: I said none of them should be going to prison or jail.

MH: Level down.

JL: Yeah, level down not level up. And my point was it’s a failure of imagination that we think prisons and jails are the only solutions we have to these issues. And most of these issues are due to poverty, mental health, drug addiction, all issues that can be addressed in other ways. And we can prevent these crimes from happening in the first place, if we take smarter steps to do so. But all we’re doing is investing in punishment and policing. And it does not work. It simply does not work. It does not keep us safer.

MH: Before we finish, and that’s a great way to round up our discussion, before we go to our audience because I do want to bring in our audience members. I just want to ask one thing. One of the reasons I admire both of you so much I’m delighted to have you on the show today is that you both take a very global perspective when it comes to criminal justice reform issues, issues of discrimination, issues of basic human rights. John, you’re one of the few celebrities actual A-listers, if you don’t mind me calling you that, who has linked the fight for human rights, civil liberties, the fight against detention, mass incarceration here at home to what’s been going on in the occupied Palestinian territories. How did you come to that position where you’re on Bill Maher, and you say, “As progressives, we should also speak up for the human rights of Palestinians.” It’s not something we often hear from A-list musicians.

JL: I just feel like that’s a baseline. That’s a baseline human position. There should not be a whole group of people in a country just because of their nationality or their religion being held in open air prisons and denied freedom of movement and having their land annexed by settlers and all these things. That’s just a human position. I’m not an expert in this area.

MH: But you are one of the few kind of very, very, very famous people to have spoken out about it.

JL: Yeah, but I think it’s just as someone who’s observing what’s going on and saying, this is right, or this is wrong, clearly that’s wrong what’s happening to the Palestinians. It’s so obvious. Anybody who doesn’t believe that’s the case are being willfully blind, I believe.

MH: Patrisse, we saw back in 2014, 2015, you saw Black Lives Matter protesters holding placards saying from Ferguson to Palestine. That was a pretty astonishing, amazing, unique connection to make at the time.

PC: Yeah, I mean, what was happening in Ferguson, while folks were being tear gassed, Palestinian community members were tweeting at them on how to heal themselves of the tear gas. It was a profound moment. And then many of us in the Black Lives Matter movement actually went to Palestine in 2015, January, and I remember being on that trip and having conversations with folks and one of the women looked at me and said, “You look shocked. Are you okay? Like, you’ve never really experienced anything like this, huh?” And I said to her “Well, the only time I’ve seen anything like this is when I’ve been on the prison yard to visit my father.” And so the issue around Palestine I think, our generation in particular, millennials have really challenged this idea if we stand up for Palestine, that means we’re anti-semetic. I vehemently disagree with that. And I think that what you’ve seen is a new generation of grassroots leaders and now people in Congress who are standing up for what’s right. It’s literally a human rights issue.

MH: Okay, last question to both of you for me five years from now, ten years from now, what does the criminal justice reform movement that you both have been working so hard on, what does it look like? And is there a point where you declare victory?

JL: We have to keep struggling. We honestly have to keep struggling and we’re getting wins. Like I said earlier, there are times when you know, we have setbacks, but I’m encouraged overall, that we’re making the case to the American people. We’re making the case to our leaders and holding them accountable. And we just have to keep pushing, and we have to realize that fear is always going to be part of this conversation. Because whenever you talk about crime, some people revert to their fears, their worst fears, and there are certain politicians and police unions, etc, that will play on those fears. The New York Post, for instance, will do the same thing. They play on people’s fears. And we can’t allow fear to dominate this conversation. We need to talk about community, we need to talk about health, we need to talk about taking care of each other, and putting people in the kinds of safe and healthy communities where we won’t even have major crime problems because of that.

PC: I think in 5-10 years, if we look at our budgets, locally, statewide, at the national level and if we are investing more in housing, healthcare, people having access to healthy food, public education, and we’re seeing a reduction in the prison and policing conversation, we’re going to be in really good shape. Part of what happens every single year when we get new budgets at the local level in particular, is every single budget gets slashed except for policing and incarceration. We need to reverse that, radically reverse that now.

MH: And on that note, we’ll have to end that conversation. Thank you to the Writers Guild Theater for hosting us here in LA. And thank you to John Legend and Patrisse Cullors.

MH: And that’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our recording engineer for this episode was William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much! See you next week.

Join The Conversation