Grammy award-winning singer John Legend is not just a man with a soulful voice. The activist is doing more than just using his art to pushback against policies that disproportionately affect Black Americans. He’s demanding action, starting in the great state of Louisiana.
“It’s been a year since I traveled to Baton Rouge to support a series of reforms to reduce the incarceration rate in Louisiana,” Legend writes in a new op-ed for The Washington Post, noting the state has already begun fixing its parole system and the way it sentences people who commit less serious crimes.
“But the work is far from over. Still lingering in the state’s constitution is a 120-year-old measure put in place to suppress the rights of African Americans: non-unanimous juries,” he wrote.
Louisiana is just one of two states — along with Oregon — that allows people to be convicted of a felony even if prosecutors fail to convince all jurors of their guilt. According to Legend, this has resulted in a disturbing number of non-unanimous convictions and marginalization of jurors of color, which only further harms Black folks who are facing prison time. Because of this, he argues Louisiana’s policy is rooted in white supremacy.
“Here’s why: During Louisiana’s all-white constitutional convention in 1898, delegates passed a series of measures specifically designed to ‘perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.’ Non-unanimous juries were one of those measures, and the intent was clear: If the federal Constitution required that African Americans be allowed to serve on juries, the state constitution would make sure that minority votes could be discounted,” Legend writes before explaining how the antiquated policy affects people today.
“In a review of nearly 1,000 felony trials in the state, the New Orleans Advocate determined that 40 percent of jury verdicts were not unanimous,” he continued. “They also found that the combination of prosecutorial strikes of African American jurors and the 10-2 jury rule has sharply diminished the participation of African American jurors. It’s hard to have faith in a criminal-justice system that treats members of the community differently based on race.”
While non-unanimous convictions seem to run counter to everything we know about the justice system, Legend implored Louisiana voters to change the law when they go to the polls this November.
“We are at a crossroads, with an opportunity to right this long-standing wrong. This year, the Louisiana legislature is putting a question on the November ballot asking voters whether they support a constitutional amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts in all criminal cases starting next year. Come November, voters will have the opportunity to strike down the discriminatory rule and uphold justice for all,” he wrote.
“It’s time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported,” Legend added. “This ballot question in November is about giving Louisiana her voice back.”