This is the first of a three-part series examining Obama's legacy on his cornerstone policy achievements.
President Obama has now granted more clemency petitions than the last 11 sitting presidents combined. In a single day during the final week of his administration, he extended a wave of pardons and commutations to 273 people in federal prisons.
But Obama has also rejected more than 16,000 clemency applications, often from people in similar circumstances, while many others are still waiting to learn their fates. And for the thousands left serving out extreme sentences for nonviolent and first-time offenses, hope is fading, and justice feels arbitrary.
These are the stories of two people living on both sides of that divide, as told to Fusion.
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Jason Hernandez, 39, grew up in a small town in Texas. At 21, he received a life sentence for selling crack cocaine.
I come from a small country town called McKinney, Texas. It's considered one of the best places to live in the country. My mother and father were very strict—no drugs, no drinking, very religious people. I did good in school, too. Got A's and B's, played sports. I looked up to my older brother and did everything he did.
Then he started selling drugs. He would go on these crack binges, and I would run his little operation selling marijuana. He ended up going to prison, he got 30 years. So I was in a position at age 16 to kind of take over. From then on, I graduated to selling cocaine and crack cocaine. I got arrested at the age of 21. First time, nonviolent offense. It was a federal charge. I didn’t want to testify for a plea deal and I didn't want to endanger my family or anybody, so I took it to trial.
My punishment was life without parole. The person that was giving me the cocaine, he was indicted with me as well, but he got 12 years. Because he gave me powder, and because I converted it into crack, I got life.
Nothing can prepare you for that. You are just in shock. I actually had to read the sentencing transcript to find out that the judge told me he didn’t want to give me life without parole, and that he had written Congress about the crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines.
I took paralegal courses in prison and became what was called like a jailhouse attorney. I did appeals for other people, divorce, child custody, things like that. I did all my own appeals, too. But everything got denied. There was really nothing left.
The only thing I could file was clemency. I read The New Jim Crow, and it kind of explained to me that the War on Drugs was basically designed to incarcerate minorities. It ignited this flame in me.
No one wanted to help me out, but I ended up contacting Michelle Alexander. I sent her a picture of a group of us. She connected us to the ACLU. They did this big report they released, and I put my petition together. I included a letter to President Obama, which people told me at the time was an unusual thing to do. So in 2013, on December 19, President Barack Obama granted me clemency along with seven other individuals.
It was like being born again. I was crying, and I kept saying, “It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.” But I knew there were other people that deserved it more, so I went back to the compound and said I was going to spread the word that there are more people like me in prison.
But now, people talk about it like it’s the end. They’ve come to terms that come January 19th, if they don’t have clemency then they may never get out.
President Obama ran on hope. It gave everybody that chance, like there was opportunity, there was hope. Kind of like we were part of America. The White House was ours, and we could call it our own. I just always had that feeling. And now the hope is gone. It’s not there no more.
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Eva Atencio Palma, 42, grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico before coming to the United States. At 28, she received a life sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana.
Moments before the judge gave me my sentence he asked me a question that was very difficult to hear. He asked me, how much does a kilo of cocaine cost? And how much does it cost not to be with your children?
I felt like my world collapsed when I heard the judge read the life sentence. The U.S. district judge who sentenced had his hands tied due to mandatory sentencing laws that have since been ruled unconstitutional. The judge noted it didn’t make sense that I receive a sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime when that same court that same week sentenced a man who killed his mother to six years in jail.
I have three children who have had to raise themselves because both my husband and I have been in prison for the last 13 years. My youngest children were three and five years old when I was arrested. Their last memories of me outside of prison were seeing the officers arrest me. They have launched online petitions for me with hopes that President Obama will hear about my case.
Obama has been the best president, he’s given so many clemencies to prisoners. But most of them have been men. As a woman, I think we also deserve to have that privilege. Of the 1,385 people Obama has given clemency, 85 have been women. I hope the Obama administration is taking us into account.
I applied for clemency in 2004, but because my family’s English is limited we later realized that we had filed the wrong petition. My family paid an attorney $3,000 to file that petition. Currently, there are two organizations helping me at no cost.
As a human being, I deserve an opportunity. I’m a mother, daughter, and sister before a society that hopes the best of me.
If I can leave this prison, I dream of going out and carrying the word of God to all the lost people, including other prisoners and people addicted to drugs. I’d go to rehabilitation centers and also visit the children who have lost their parents due to drug abuse.
I live with that illusion and that I will be with my children again. I have asked God and my children to forgive me. I pray every day.
My children fear that if Obama doesn’t pardon me then I’ll be incarcerated for the rest of my life. As we get closer to the end of the Obama administration, everyday that passes gets harder.