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Obama at Howard

Sen. Barack Obama will lay out plan to overhaul the criminal justice system at a speech at Howard University this afternoon focused on racial disparities. According to a draft of the speech released this morning, he will reach back to the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and more recently to the thousands who marched in Jena, La., protesting what they view as the overly harsh prosecution of six black high school students charged with beating a white classmate unconscious.

In part, the draft reads like the kind of fiery speech Obama might have given as a community organizer in black neighborhoods of Chicago. "Like Katrina did with poverty, Jena exposed glaring inequities in our justice system that were around long before that schoolyard fight broke out. It reminds us of the fact that we have a system that locks away too many young, first-time, non-violent offenders for the better part of their lives--a decision that's made not by a judge in a courtroom, but by politicians in Washington. It reminds us that we have certain sentences that are based less on the kind of crime you commit than on what you look like and where you come from."

The Jena march, which was initiated on college campuses and through black radio, has underscored issues of race and criminal justice, with all of the top-tier Democratic candidates weighing in on the events in Jena.

Obama initially took heat from civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson for being too slow to address the Jena case, telling a reporter at The State newspaper in South Carolina that the senator was "acting like he's white." Jackson, who is an Obama supporter, later said he did not recall making the comment.

Obama's plan also addresses equal employment law and an overhaul of the Justice Department, saying he will rid the department of "ideologues and political cronies." And he will talk about expanding the use of drug courts for non-violent offenders and ending the discrepancy between the minimum sentences for powder cocaine and crack, which is subject to a stiffer penalty.

He is not the first Democratic candidate to advocate the rewriting of those drug laws, laws which the ACLU says contributes to the heavy incarceration of black men. During a debate at Howard University earlier this year, Sens. Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and former Senator John Edwards all raised the issue when asked a question about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

--Krissah Williams

By Washington Post editors  |  September 28, 2007; 11:22 AM ET
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