- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

HIGHLAND, Ind. (AP) - A northwest Indiana man who served 18 years in prison on drug convictions is enjoying life as a free man after being among the 214 people granted clemency by President Barack Obama this summer.

Reinaldo Arocho, a nonviolent drug offender, said he worked to be a model inmate and always held out hope after he was sentenced to more than 32 years in prison in 2000. The 50-year-old now works as a dishwasher at a steakhouse, and although it’s been difficult to find a better job because of his felony convictions and employment gap, Arocho said he remains positive.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Arocho said of his release in September. “But it wasn’t guaranteed.”

There has been a cultural and political shift toward leniency in sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders since Arocho was sentenced, partly due to an increase in the U.S. prison population, the (Northwest Indiana) Times (https://bit.ly/2htjsn1 ) reported.

The U.S. Department of Justice launched the Clemency Initiative in April 2014 to encourage federal inmates who met certain qualifications to petition the president to have their sentence commuted. When the program started, defense attorney Kerry C. Connor immediately thought of Arocho.

A federal judge had agreed to reduce Arocho’s prison term to 25 years in January 2011, two years after Connor made the request citing Arocho’s exemplary behavior in prison and changes made in crack-cocaine penalties. But the judge said he couldn’t reduce the sentence, despite what he called a “pristine record of conduct,” lower than the mandatory minimum imposed at his initial sentencing.

“There was no inmate more qualified than Reinaldo for clemency,” said Connor, a member of Clemency Project 2014, national working group of volunteer attorneys and advocates.

Archo submitted a petition in December 2015, saying he was “physically, mentally and spiritually a changed man.” He had missed his children’s graduations but he hoped to attend his daughter’s wedding in the summer.

“I can be a productive member in society if given the chance,” he wrote.

In August, he was among 214 inmates to receive clemency by Obama, who has said he will continue to exercise clemency powers until Inauguration Day.

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Information from: The Times, https://www.nwitimes.com

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