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After Prison, Then Clemency, 'I Can Do The Right Thing'


Many Democrats and Republicans agree that the tough drug laws of the 1980s and '90s put too many people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Many prisoners are still serving 20 to 30-year sentences, even life. President Obama has granted just 184 commutations and pardons - fewer than many of his predecessors - even as he's encouraged prisoners to apply under a program called the Clemency Project. One of the 95 prisoners who got good news during this holiday season is David Padilla of Philadelphia. He was sent to prison for life in 1997 for conspiracy and intent to distribute cocaine. NPR's Carrie Johnson and Marisa Penaloza met Mr. Padilla at the end of 2014 when he was serving his life sentence at the Fairton federal prison in New Jersey.


DAVID PADILLA: There's no doubt in my mind that I feel I should have been punished - no doubt about it. But I don't agree that I should die in prison

SIMON: He told NPR that after 18 years in prison he's not the same as the 30-year-old who once helped sell drugs.


PADILLA: I'm truly remorseful. I'm sorry. I'm not the same man I used to be. I'm a different person. And hopefully my work has shown that I can be a law-abiding citizen. I can make a difference. I could be a father, a husband, and I could do the right thing.

SIMON: David Padilla had three young children - two daughters and a son - when he entered prison. He says he decided to try to make them proud.


PADILLA: So I decided to enroll in college. So I decided to get into the dental field. So I decided to do these things that I'm telling them to do. So every time I would get grades in the semester, I would send them my grades. This is what Daddy got. Show me your grades. You know, it was important for me to stay the course because I already have caused so much damage. That was an incentive enough for me to have the bond that I need with my wife and my children.

SIMON: He's 48 years old now and lifts his hand as he speaks.


PADILLA: I never imagined that these hands will make a denture for somebody. These hands will make a prosthesis for someone. I never thought that. But until I put it to practice and I put my effort is when I realized that wow, you have more potential than what you think.

SIMON: He's rediscovered music in prison, too, and became a singer in the prison's church.


PADILLA: (Singing in Spanish).

SIMON: David Padilla's father died while he was in prison, as did his brother and a 16-year-old niece. But his marriage stayed together. His wife, Lisette, cared for their family and supported her husband through failed appeals and disappointments. The Clemency Project took on his case. In 2014 he said...


PADILLA: I don't want to put my hopes too high 'cause I've been let down so much. And my hope is to be home soon, to be with my family once again, to reestablish my household one more time.

SIMON: David Padilla ended 2015 in a halfway house, his sentence commuted by President Obama. If he's able to find a job and continue his 18 years of good behavior, David Padilla will be a free man in the spring of 2016. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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