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‘You Should Not Be Able to Buy Justice.’ John Legend on the Dangers of Incarceration During Coronavirus

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Singer and activist John Legend shared more than just his performance skills during Thursday’s TIME 100 Talks: Finding Hope virtual summit.

Legend helped kick things off by opening the summit with a stripped-back version of “Lean On Me” solo at his piano at home, and closed out the two-hour digital event with his new song “Bigger Love.” But he also shared a thoughtful conversation with TIME Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal.

Legend has been a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform, an issue that has become increasingly urgent with the spread of COVID-19 through jails and prisons. “It’s been a hotbed for a lot of infections, because so many people are so close to each other, and the conditions already aren’t the best,” Legend explained, noting that not everyone in jail or prison is serving a long-term sentence — or is even guilty of a crime, but instead may simply be unable to pay bail. “That should not carry with it a death sentence,” he said. “We need to think very carefully about who we really need to have in our jails and prisons to keep us safe.”

He continued: “You should not be able to buy justice in America.”

Outside his efforts to reduce New York prison populations, Legend has been keeping busy: he’s a freshly-minted stay-at-home dad thanks to the coronavirus, a lifestyle change that requires a sense of humor. “When you have kids like we do, being home doesn’t necessarily mean you can a lot more work done,” he said with a laugh. Still, he said, he’s lucky: 4-year-old Luna and nearly 2-year-old Miles are at an age where they are “in heaven hanging out with mom and dad.” (Legend shares parental responsibilities with cookbook author and model Chrissy Teigen, who generously shares stories of their family escapades on social media.)

Thankfully Legend already has an album set for release this summer. He closed out the summit with a solo performance of its title single, the new track “Bigger Love.” “I didn’t know the circumstances under which I’d be releasing it, but here we are,” he said of the record. “I think people could use a little shot of hope and love — and a moment to dance as well.”

Legend’s music has often served as a soundtrack for powerful moments, and he reaffirmed his optimism. “I do believe in the human spirit, and I do believe America and the world are comprised of a lot of people who care about each other,” he said. “If we try our best to summon the best of our human energy and spirit and ingenuity toward making a better future, I think we can do that.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com