THE winds of social change are blowing briskly across this nation and are picking up particular momentum around the reform of our criminal-justice system.
The winds blew a message into my email inbox last month, with an offer that I could not refuse. The email from John Legend was a personal invitation to a private dinner in New York City to “discuss ways that prosecutors can help reduce mass incarceration in America.” Legend continued, “The purpose of the dinner is for me to learn more about the role of District Attorneys within the justice system and to discuss ways that I can support you in your efforts to enact alternatives to incarceration.”
Legend, winner of Grammy and Academy awards, as a singer and songwriter, set up a nonprofit organization earlier this year called Free America (www.letsfreeamerica.org, #freeamerica). He describes his initial efforts as a “listening tour” that has brought him to prisons and jails to hear about the experiences of incarcerated people. Next, he thought he needed to hear from prosecutors about the complex decisions we face each day. I was honored to be asked to dinner with Legend and interested in the perspective a thoughtful artist could bring to the discussion that is too often dominated by lawyers and politicians.
Unlike so many discussions around criminal-justice reform that vilify prosecutors, the Free America team realized that prosecutors are a necessary voice and that we have the most power of all of the actors in the system. The invitation presumed we were also concerned about the future of criminal justice in America.
This is a good time for reform. The crime rate across the country continues a downward trend, hovering at lows not seen for half a century. Yet, if we were to return to the incarceration rate of the 1970s, we’d have to release 80 percent of all inmates in America. Our system is remarkable for its recidivism and racial disproportionality.
The fiscal costs of this era, which historians will no doubt label “The Era of Mass Incarceration,” are unsustainable. More important, reform is essential to begin to address the chasm of mistrust between our government and the communities most impacted by crime. We should work harder to keep young people out of the system, review excesses in sentencing laws, and develop intentional strategies to help people successfully transition from prison back into the community.
So I cashed in some airline miles and broke open my piggy bank to take advantage of the offer of a private dinner with Legend and the Free America staff. In a small room at a private club in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, I joined elected district attorneys from Manhattan, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Delaware, along with two prosecutors from the Department of Justice, all curious to see where this would lead.
Legend had done his homework. He knew that DAs have the discretion as gatekeepers of the system and that we have the power to shape a justice system that reflects the values and aspirations of our community. Among the topics we discussed over dinner were:
• School disciplinary policies that expel students to the streets, making graduation much less likely: People without a high school diploma are five times more likely to be imprisoned during their lifetime than those who graduate.
• Alternatives for drug addiction and mental illness: The criminal-justice system is the default system for these medical issues, but that can change, as evidenced by Seattle’s LEAD program, a national model.
• What should our response to gun violence be, especially when the lethal weapon is in the hands of a teenager with a developing brain?
• Diversion: I explained our 180 Program here in King County, a true partnership with the community that helps kids understand their choices in life and keeps them from the courtroom.
• Restorative Justice, where victims of crime can choose to have a mediated conversation with the person who offended against them.
• Second-look, parole, clemency: If we are going to reduce the prison population, we need a system to review exceptionally long sentences imposed decades ago to see if they are still necessary for public safety.
Removing those barriers to successful re-entry, such as the laws in Washington state prohibiting anyone who has ever had a felony conviction from applying for a license necessary for any one of more than 90 professions that might pay a living wage.
We shared not only dinner, but a deep concern that the policies we have been asked to administer as ministers of justice have brought us to the point where we are the world’s leader in incarceration. Everything must be on the table in the conversations about reform and more voices must be heard.
Just as the dessert plates were being cleared away and we had agreed that this was our time to lead and to act to bring criminal-justice reform to our jurisdictions, Legend checked his watch and thanked his guests. The Seahawks were on Monday Night Football and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, who is from Snohomish, is a big Hawks fan.
What if we brought the same enthusiasm we have for professional football to the cause of criminal-justice reform? If the Era of Mass Incarceration is truly over, what would historians call the next era? Suddenly, everyone agrees that reform is imperative. At stake in this movement is nothing less than the fabric of our nation and the profound moral issues of how we deal with crime, public safety and each other.
Maybe this revolution is too important to be left to the lawyers and the politicians. Maybe the people are ready for a movement led by artists and musicians and ordinary people, such as John Legend.
Dan Satterberg is the King County prosecuting attorney.