WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrat Barack Obama said Friday that as president he would relax drug sentencing laws and address vast racial inequities in the justice system as part of his crime policy.
The Illinois senator said he would review mandatory minimum drug sentencing and give first-time, nonviolent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence in drug rehabilitation programs instead of prison.
"If you're convicted of a crime involving drugs, of course you should be punished," Obama said in a speech at Howard University's opening convocation. "But let's not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference is where the people are using them or who is using them."
The historically black college awarded Obama an honorary degree.
Obama framed his speech around the case of a racially charged school beating in Jena, La., that has sparked demonstrations by civil rights advocates. Racial animosity flared about a year ago in the largely white town when a black student sat under a tree that was a traditional gathering place for whites.
A day later, three nooses were found hanging from the tree. Reports followed of racial fights at the school, culminating in the a December attack by a group of black students on a white classmate. The black students were arrested while no one was ever held responsible for hanging the noose.
"Like Katrina did with poverty, Jena exposed glaring inequities in our justice system that were around long before that schoolyard fight broke out," Obama said.
Last week, the State newspaper in South Carolina reported that civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said Obama was "acting like he's white" for not speaking out more forcefully about the incidents in Jena. Jackson later said in a statement that he had been taken out of context.
As Obama finished his speech, his campaign announced he would make a four-day "judgment and experience tour" across Iowa next week. The tour was timed for the fifth anniversary of a speech Obama gave in opposition to the Iraq war. It is meant to answer doubts that the first-term senator is ready to be president, a reality that his advisers acknowledge are keeping some voters from signing onto his campaign.
During his years as an Illinois state legislature, Obama played a lead role on several law enforcement issues, from reforming the death penalty system to studying racial profiling in traffic stops. He brought a decidedly liberal viewpoint but developed a reputation for listening closely to police and Republican lawmakers.
For instance, he led negotiations on legislation to require Illinois police to videotape interrogations in death penalty cases as a safeguard against abusing and threatening suspects into false confessions. Police groups had long opposed the idea, but Obama got them on board and the measure passed unanimously.
"There's also no reason why we can't pass a racial profiling law like I did in Illinois, or encourage state to reform the death penalty so that innocent people do not end up on death row," Obama said.
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