Changing the criminal justice system means participating in local politics and, among other things, learning who makes decisions about drug laws, former President Barack Obama said during a town hall event with young men of color in Oakland on Tuesday.
Obama said the “criminal justice system itself has to make some changes” and “most of that work needs to be done at the local level and not at the federal level.”
To do that, “one of the things that communities have to do in terms of mobilizing is getting educated on who’s making decisions about the drug laws, the parole system, the bail system, the district attorneys at the local levels and making sure that the people who are in those positions of power are knowledgable about the communities they’re serving, care about the communities they’re serving, are committed to justice in how they apply the laws,” he said.
“Too often folks don’t know who those folks are,” he said. “They’re just somebody.”
Later in the event, the 44th president returned to the idea that young people need to be actively engaged in shaping drug laws and other areas of public policy.
“The truth of the matter is that nothing changes if citizens, people living in communities aren’t paying attention and aren’t educating themselves about how are decisions made about a school board, how are decisions made about police oversight, how are decisions made about drug laws,” he said.
“You can have a bunch of politicians or celebrities talk all they want,” Obama continued. “But ultimately what will actually bring about change is when all of you go back to your respective communities and activate and educate yourselves and then insist that whoever it is that’s in charge of making those decisions is making them on behalf of communities for the right reasons in the right way. And if there aren’t people who are doing that, as I said, they should be replaced. And if there’s nobody to replace them, then you should step up and prepare yourself to replace them.”
Like many politicians, Obama’s messaging around drug policy has evolved over the years. Not long after taking office in 2009, he solicited questions online for a town hall event and laughed off one about whether legalizing marijuana could help improve the economy, for example.
The question “ranked fairly high,” he said at the time, joking that he doesn’t “know what that says about the online audience.” He then quickly dismissed the notion and said, “I do not think that is a good strategy to grow the economy.”
And in 2015, he told Vice News that legalizing cannabis “shouldn’t be young people’s biggest priority.”
“So let’s put it in perspective, young people, I understand this is important to you but you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace, maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana,” he said.
But although marijuana specifically didn’t come up at the Tuesday event, Obama seemed to indicate that his thinking may have shifted by saying that addressing drug laws, at least from a broad perspective, is a central part of criminal justice reform and is something that young people should be actively engaged in.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/The Obama Foundation.