Obama's Legacy Project

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

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.

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.

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