"We're destroying way too many communities and families," says Legend of what he believes to be a flawed system

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John Legend joined civil rights activists Friday evening, ahead of this week’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, to discuss a cause close to his heart: criminal justice reform.

“We need to really rethink our criminal justice system,” the musician told PEOPLE Friday at Politico‘s An Evening with John Legend panel discussion in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve ratcheted up penalties for everything. We’re singular among other nations when it comes to the way we penalize crime. Over the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, we just decided everything’s got a new minimum mandatory penalty – a ridiculous amount. Compared to other countries we’re way heavier with sentencing. We need to rethink that. We’re destroying way too many communities and families. I think we can do it in a smarter, more compassionate way.”

Legend, who notably broached the issue in an impassioned Oscars acceptance speech in February, recently launched the Free America campaign, with which he hopes to put an end to mass incarceration. The Grammy winner believes the criminal justice system mishandles cases where mental illness and poverty are present.

“A lot of them have been through trauma and witnessed tragedy in their own lives,” says Legend, 36, of inmates. “A lot of them have circumstances that have put them in a position where they’ve had a lot of disadvantage in life, and what I want to do is really humanize them and really hear their stories. Because sometimes we put them away and forget about them and we don’t listen to them. We don’t realize they have stories and circumstances and families that led them to the trouble that they’re in right now.

“A lot of them are dealing with drug issues and mental health issues, and we’re using prisons as a way to deal with mental illness and drug dependency when I think there are other ways to deal with those things.”