Modern philanthropy is a lot like the innovation economy: It’s hands-on, driven for impact and ambitious. Modern donors want to be involved. They want to pour their money and influence into seemingly intractable social problems and move them forcibly toward change. The new #FreeAmerica platform fits this perfectly.
By that and any other definition, John Legend is a modern philanthropist. He announced his #FreeAmerica campaign shortly after his Oscar victory with Hip Hop’s Common for their song, “Glory.”
“#FREEAMERICA is a multi-year culture campaign initiated by John Legend to change the national conversation about our country’s misguided policies and transform America’s criminal justice system,” the website states.
Today #FreeAmerica is taking the message of prison reform to a global platform. Legend announced he’d tour and learn and better understand the plague of mass incarceration. He’s followed through. Soon, he is likely to take innovative steps toward reform. He will likely be hands-on, innovative and focused on meaningful impact.
That is exactly what is needed, and what someone with his platform can do better than most. #FreeAmerica could likely end up doing just that.
To date, talk about prison reform is rampant. Yet so much of it is talk. Sentencing reform is a hot-button political issue. It’s critically important from a moral standpoint. But it won’t reform a broken system that will send people back into society ill-prepared to make their way. The revolving door of incarceration will continue.
New York Times Columnist David Brooks made this point painfully clear in a recent column when he wrote, “The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems largely to be wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may therefore be inappropriate.”
Brooks points out that reform can’t happen without the participation of district attorneys and prosecutors who have nearly unfettered power to overcharge with felonies. Data backs him up. Far more arrests result in felony charges that lead to plea deals with prison time attached. Felonies stick for life. This process has little oversight.
This is just one area of badly needed reform. As the corruption in Brooklyn has shown with dozens of bad arrests, prosecution of police and prosecutors who knowingly charge the wrong people is also badly needed. A deeper understanding of supervision after prison and better oversight of this is badly needed. A whole gang of issues are badly needed.
The system needs an overhaul. None of the political leaders talking about prison reform to date starting with every presidential candidate in 2016 has come close to articulating a true vision of reform, one that gets the job done right.
In short, the issue of prison reform is one of those seemingly “unsolvable” problems that won’t be solved without the power of philanthropic innovation. Legend could well be the person to best champion a real platform of reform, not one driven by political will or gain, but one steeped in the possibility of what can be done in a thoroughly modern way.