EL RENO, Okla. — According to the White House, America spends about $80 billion each year on incarceration.
They say that’s the same amount of money it would take to double every teacher salary in America or pay for every high school graduate to go to college.
President Obama is focusing on criminal justice reform in his second term in office.
This week, he commuted the sentences of more than 40 inmates convicted of low-level, non-violent drug offenses.
El Reno Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) became the focus of a nationwide discussion on fairness in sentencing this week.
“The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that,” said President Obama on Tuesday at an address to the NAACP.
Justice reformers say federal crack cocaine sentences unfairly put thousands of minority inmates behind bars for life prior to a change in federal law in 2010. The sentencing regime is costing taxpayers billions.
“In the past few decades, we’ve also locked up more non-violent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before, and that is the real reason our prison population is so high,” Obama said.
Jason Hernandez was convicted in 1998 as a drug dealer in Texas.
Because the drug was crack, Hernandez got life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Crack cocaine was primarily dealt by minorities and used by minorities, and that’s the reason why our prisons are filled individuals serving 10, 20, 30 life sentences for crack cocaine,” Hernandez said.
He was supposed to die in prison for mistakes made as a teenager.
“I had just always believed that if I didn’t give up, and I lived every day like I was going home tomorrow. I had strongly believed that I was.”
Hernandez filed the clemency paperwork himself; an eight-page application with the potential to save his life.
“For two days, I just held (the commutation letter) in my hand. I wouldn’t let go of it. I even slept with it because I felt if I let go of it, it wouldn’t be real anymore,” Hernandez said. “What had happened for me was the first time in history. An individual for a crack cocaine offense, a minority serving life without parole had never received clemency. It was like hitting the lottery twice in a row or three times. Not winning your money, but winning your life back.”
Hernandez spent 17 years in federal prison, ten in Beaumont, Texas and the final seven at El Reno FCI.
Hernandez now lives at home in McKinney, Texas.
He works as a mentor for juvenile offenders in the kitchen at Cafe Momentum, a restaurant for youthful offenders. He’s using his circumstance to help kids change the course of their own lives in a way he couldn’t almost two decades ago.
“If I could change one life or two (lives) I would feel like I had failed. My goal is to change hundreds or thousands of lives,” said Hernandez.
Jason Hernandez has two jobs; mentoring youth, and working as a welder at a muffler shop… a trade he picked up at federal prison in El Reno.
“I was practically a dead man walking and President Obama gave me my life back. I see him like a father now. Like any son, you want to make your father proud, and that’s what my aim is,” Hernandez said.
Jason Hernandez is living proof that rehabilitation is possible.
“I hope one of these days when they ask the president about his greatest decisions. When he names the Affordable Care Act and the other accomplishments. that he also says, ‘You know what? The clemency initiative and that Mexican kid, Jason Hernandez. I’m glad I let him out because he has done so much for the community.’ That’s how I live my life. I want to make him very very proud of me.”
What’s broken can be fixed, for Jason Hernandez and perhaps even for an entire system of justice some believe is beyond hope.
In Oklahoma, there is a major Republican initiative on the table right now.
Just last week, Governor Mary Fallin proposed a plan to reward model inmates with early release.
The governor and some district attorneys are using her proposal as a starting point to reduce prison over-crowding Oklahoma.