Obama's Legacy Project

The president returns to his roots in the fight for criminal justice

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As a federal convict, Jason Hernandez never got a chance to vote for Barack Obama, but for years he dreamed that the President would one day know his name. He had been a high school drug dealer in McKinney, Texas, peddling joints and dime bags before eventually building a criminal operation with his brothers that included methamphetamines and a large amount of crack cocaine. In 1998, at the age of 21, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The judge in his case objected to the sentence, but he had no choice. Decades of tough-on-crime laws passed by Congress to target crack made it mandatory. Hernandez's supplier, who was charged with a similar amount of cocaine but in powder form, received only 12 years. "It's like living and dying at the same time," Hernandez wrote from prison in an email about his terminal incarceration. "Imagine being dead with the capability of looking back on your life, wishing you could go back and do so many things different."

Then, late last year, Obama announced that he would soon set Hernandez free. There wasn't a lot of fanfare: the White House published the commutations of eight convicted drug dealers in an email to reporters right before Obama left on holiday to Hawaii. In an accompanying statement, the President called his decision "an important first step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness."

In fact, the first step Obama took toward Hernandez's freedom actually occurred in the Oval Office more than a year before, just weeks after Obama won re-election. The President gathered his senior aides to read out his hopes for a second-term agenda, which he had scribbled on a yellow legal pad. In addition to the stuff that everyone knew about, like immigration reform and jobs, Obama had listed an old priority that had nearly slipped away in the first term: criminal-justice reform.

It was an issue that had animated Obama's community-organizing days on the South Side of Chicago. It later drove him in the Illinois legislature to push for death-penalty reforms and to pass a law that required police to tape their interrogations in murder cases. And it was an issue he promised to bring to the White House in a 2007 speech that envisioned a "new dawn of justice in America." "No one has been willing to brave the politics and make it right," he said at Howard University.

The first term brought no new dawn, burdened as it was by a bitter health care fight and multiple economic and political crises. There were some new programs and reforms at the Justice Department, and a compromise bill that Obama signed reducing the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity to 18 to 1, from 100 to 1. But his pardon-and-commutation record was among the least active of any modern President's, and he was cautious of appearing to back any government programs that appeared to narrowly target a specific demographic group. "I'm not the President of black America," he said in 2012, just a few months before his re-election. "I'm the President of the United States of America."

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