A Star Turn for Justice Reform

At the DYRS Achievement Center (l to r) : DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, John Legend, DYRS Director Clinton Lacey, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Brenda Donald.


John Legend, the nine-time Grammy Award winner, and Oscar winner, has taken up the cause of criminal and juvenile justice reform. He is speaking out against mass incarceration and overly harsh sentences for adults and young people.

“We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend has said. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world.”

He recognizes the efforts by other individuals and organizations to lift up this issue, and has noted that he is “just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively.”

His #FREEAMERICA campaign will include visits to prisons, meetings with people who have been released from prison, press conferences, and meetings with nonprofit organizations and other advocates who support sentencing changes, youth de-incarceration and other justice reforms.

He took his campaign to Austin, Texas three weeks ago, where he met with state legislators and a bipartisan group of organizations, including Public Welfare Foundation grantee Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which has helped gain reforms in that state’s adult and juvenile criminal justice systems.

On April 20, he talked with crime survivors, law enforcement and elected officials at an event in Sacramento, California, organized by Public Welfare grantee Californians for Safety and Justice, as part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

And, later that same week, Legend was in Washington, DC, where he toured the Achievement Center of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). The Center, which was featured in a recent Public Welfare Foundation photo series, uses programs with a Positive Youth Justice approach to foster career development, life skills and healthy living among court-involved youth.

At the Achievement Center, Legend met with DYRS director Clinton Lacey and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Brenda Donald, among others. He also received a briefing from Liz Ryan, President and CEO of Youth First! a new initiative – and Public Welfare grantee – focused on ending youth incarceration in juvenile prisons and redirecting resources to effective community programs for youth. David Domenici, who heads the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, also briefed Legend on issues pertaining to the education of justice-involved youth.

“All around the country, I hear stories of children who look like me being labeled as criminals for doing the kinds of things that children do,” Legend said during his visit. “The fight for educational equality is deeply tied to the system of incarceration, which all too often begins in our schools. Kids who act out in even minor ways, which once would result in a visit to the principal, now results in a trip with the cops and time in cages. That’s why we launched the #FREEAMERICA campaign.”

A story about John Legend’s visit to Austin can be seen here and a story about his visit to Washington, DC can be seen here.

Click here to learn more about Youth First!

(l to r), Clinton Lacey, John Legend, and Public Welfare Foundation President Mary McClymont (seated behind Legend).

David Domenici of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS).

Liz Ryan, President and CEO of Youth First!


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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