Criminal justice reform group #cut50 held vigils throughout in front of the White House, pleading with President Obamato do more before he left office on behalf of their loved ones. 39-year-old Jason Hernandez, who was granted clemency in 2013, was in attendance at one of the gatherings. The criminal justice system gave Hernandez a life sentence, compared to his supplier’s 12 years, since he converted the drugs in his possession to crack cocaine. According to Hernandez, Obama still had so much more that he needed to do:
To me it feel like a last battle cry. President Obama, if he wants to leave his legacy as far as clemency, he has fewer than 60, 70 days to do that because everyone feels that the door will close as soon as he leaves office.
As Obama’s tenure comes quickly to a close, many fear that Hernandez might be proven correct.
President-elect Donald Trump has done very little to address criminal justice reform. In fact, Trump’s few instances discussing the topic of criminal justice generally ended in a consensus that America needed more “law and order.” Worse for criminal justice reform advocates, Trump’s conclusions suggest that certain communities are the only institutions in need of reform.
Trump’s few instances discussing the topic of criminal justice generally ended in a consensus that America needed more law and order.
These families are more than worried that a Trump administration will do very little on the topic of criminal justice reform. In fact, they believe they face a damaging back-tracking, particularly following the appointment of controversial figure Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as U.S. Attorney General. Sessions’ views on criminal justice and the Drug War represent everything constitutional criminal justice reform advocates have fought against.
But there’s hope. President-elect Trump has already shown an interest in hearing from several sides and changing his assumptions.
Retired Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a nominee for Secretary of Defense, received praise from Trump after he explained that there were alternatives to torture, namely waterboarding. This comes after a year of intense campaign rhetoric from Trump promising to take extreme measures in an attempt to combat terror. Following his meeting with Mattis, Trump said that while he was certainly still open to torture, he was “impressed” by Mattis’ response. There are mixed signals, though, seeing as Trump has also appointed the pro-torture Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to serve as CIA Director. That said, Trump’s positive response to Mattis’ suggestions indicate that he is open to the alternatives should they be communicated properly.
There is also Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-Hawaii) meeting with Trump. Gabbard, former vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, had not only supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ run for president – she had stepped down as vice-chair in order to endorse Sanders – but she also voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Gabbard was transparent about their meeting, which had piqued significant interest. “President-elect Trump asked me to meet with him about our current policies regarding Syria, our fight against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as other foreign policy challenges we face,” she revealed. Gabbard wanted to meet with Trump “before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government.”
The meeting is quite notable. For Trump, it showed his willingness to listen to all voices. For Gabbard, who has proved on several occasions that she had no problems working across the aisle, it showed her dedication to a cause larger than partisanship. “While the rules of political expediency would say I should have refused to meet with President-elect Trump, I never have and never will play politics with American and Syrian lives,” she said.
For what it’s worth, Trump has proven several times his ability to evolve on important issues and to seek the company of nontraditional voices. Should an advocate strongly dedicated to the cause of criminal justice reform find their way into Trump’s company, there could be a real chance for positive change. Following another significant change of tone on an environmental issue, Rare’s own Kevin Boyd wrote, “Trump’s flip-flops on torture and climate change are hopefully an indication that he plans to govern as a reality-based pragmatist instead of the populist ideologue he campaigned as.”
Only time will tell what is in store for the next four years. What we can be sure of is that it will be the advocates who will carry the torch, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
The history of the “war on drugs”
This is the conclusion to our series “Pardon,” examining the state of nonviolent criminal justice reform as the Obama presidency comes to a close.