Crime & Courts

President Obama shortens prison term for Alaska man

A single federal inmate from Alaska was granted a commutation Monday in President Barack Obama's latest round of clemency.

Benjamin Meneses III had his 20-year prison sentence commuted to expire on Dec. 19, 2018. The grant requires Meneses to enroll and complete a residential drug treatment program before his release, according to a list of pardons and commutations maintained by the Department of Justice.

"He was very happy," said Federal Public Defender Rich Curtner, who submitted Meneses' petition to the Clemency Project. "In fact, he asked that I not tell (his trial attorney) because he wanted to surprise his family."

Obama granted clemency to 231 individuals on Monday — 153 commutations and 78 pardons — bringing the total to 1,324 during his presidency. Most commutations he has granted to inmates serving long, mandatory-minimum sentences imposed over the past three decades.

[Read more: Obama adds to historic number of federal prisoners granted clemency]

Meneses is the third federal inmate from Alaska to have his sentence reduced by the president, according to the DOJ list.

He pleaded guilty in February 2007 to selling 54 grams of crack cocaine for $1,850, according to the government's sentencing memo.

Court documents described Meneses as a middleman in the local drug trade. He sold crack to street-level dealers, attorneys said.

Back in 2007, the sale of 50 grams or more of crack cocaine called for a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. The court doubled that sentence if a defendant had a prior drug conviction, as was the case with Meneses.

"It is to be hoped that 240 months will provide the inspiration for Meneses to learn some other way to make a living upon his release," the prosecutors' three-page memo said. Documents suggest Meneses accepted the plea as "just," as two prior drug convictions meant the case could have resulted in life in prison.

But Curtner said if Meneses were sentenced under the same set of circumstances today, the punishment would be less severe.

"His petition was in line with others," Curtner said, describing Meneses as a nonviolent drug offender who has already served about a decade of his original prison term.

Defense attorney Randall Cavanaugh wrote in his sentencing memo that his client was in dire need of education and vocational skills to prevent him from being lured back into drug activity to support his family.

That memo and other court documents do not mention Meneses having a drug problem of his own. However, Curtner said President Obama thought Meneses should undergo drug treatment. The Bureau of Prison program takes up to a year to complete and Meneses is getting into it immediately, he said.

"He should be back in Alaska at the halfway house in about a year and a half," Curtner said. "He's got support up here."

The defense's memo indicates that Meneses' criminal history lacked violence. His rap sheet out of Vermont includes a conviction for burglarizing summer cabins when he was underage, though he was charged as an adult, and a drug conviction stemming from possessing drugs for personal use when he went to see a probation officer.

Meneses is being held at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution Victorville in Central California, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

According to the bureau, Meneses is 36. If he had served his full sentence, he would have been 42 when released.

Curtner said about a dozen clemency petitions have been submitted on behalf of Alaska inmates. Three petitions were granted, about five were denied and six or more are still being considered, he said.

The remaining petitions are likely to be the last for the state's inmates, said Curtner. Those petitions will be considered by Obama during his final month in office, he said.

As of Nov. 30, pending clemency petitions at the Office of the Pardon Attorney totaled 1,937 pardon petitions and 13,042 commutation petitions.

Obama's efforts to shorten the sentences of drug offenders punished under older, harsher laws is unlikely to continue under President-elect Donald Trump, whose pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is a vocal critic of Obama's use of commutations.