ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Thousands of people sentenced under the tough drug laws of the 1980s and '90s are still in prison. They're serving mandatory minimum sentences that require them to spend decades, if not life, behind bars. Today people convicted of the same crimes serve far less time. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story of a man named David Padilla who's serving a life sentence in one of those earlier cases.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: David Padilla lives here...
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JOHNSON: ...Inside this medium-security prison in Fairmont, New Jersey. He's lived here for 18 years now, since his arrest in November 1996. A year later a judge found him guilty of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. David and his codefendants moved drugs out of a Philadelphia hotel in a dark-colored suitcase. State police later found two handguns and a trap door in their borrowed van. David had two previous drug charges. The prosecutor in his case asked the court to weigh those priors and the judge sent him to prison for the rest of his life. Sitting on a tan-colored plastic chair in the visitor's area and looking back on sentencing day, he sighs.
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.
JOHNSON: Lisette is David's wife of 27 years.
LISETTE PADILLA: I guess through the years, you know, he's been away he has become a better person, a better man.
JOHNSON: They met as teenagers in Philadelphia, neighbors. Back then, David was a kind of celebrity on the block - high school prom king, a bit of a bragger. And though he was an honor student, David says college never crossed his mind. Eighteen years away, Lisette says, have changed him.
L. PADILLA: David is an amazing man, amazing father. He works so hard, you know, and I'm so proud of what he has accomplished all these years. I think prison was a good thing for him.
JOHNSON: In 1997, the judge branded him a career offender who had squandered his potential. Here's a glimpse of what he accomplished since then. Behind bars David found an unlikely passion, dentistry. He works in the prison lab, work that puts a smile on his face and a shine in his eyes.
D. PADILLA: I'd never imagine that these hands will make a denture for somebody, these hands will make a prostheses for someone. I never thought I can do that.
JOHNSON: David also finished an associate degree in college. Ask and he'll give the credit for his close-knit family and his own turnaround to his wife.
D. PADILLA: I really owe it all to Lisette because she's been mommy, she's been daddy, she's been a supportive wife. She's been my everything. She had options. I gave her options.
L. PADILLA: The day of the sentencing, he turned around. He tells me go on with your life. And I told him no. I told him no, I'm here for you. You know? Things get hard, I've got to be there for you, you know, regardless. We're his voice in the outside world. I believe that when two people get married it's forever.
JOHNSON: All these years, every year, Lisette says she takes her vacation around their wedding anniversary in August so she can visit him multiple times in a week. And though their children were young when he was sentenced, he's remained a big part of their lives, nudging and even nagging them about school and doing the right thing. David said he had two choices when he got sent to prison for life - continue on the road to destruction or be a model for his three kids.
D. PADILLA: I have to show them that I can be good, that I can do what 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, these are my grades, show me your grades.
JOHNSON: David's oldest daughter, Sasha, now 26.
SASHA PADILLA: I remember this project on Italy. It was one of my biggest projects. And he actually went into the library, he got the encyclopedia, printed-out pages for me and while I'm looking at the photocopies he has the book. So we're conversing back and forth on what's more important, what should I write? What should my thesis be?
JOHNSON: Sasha says she's always felt a deep attachment to her dad. David now age 47, also mentors young offenders. And just as David's been preparing himself in prison, Lisette says she and the children have been preparing themselves too, for a day they can only hope for. During David's long incarceration, she's squirreled away anything that could document her husband's transformation.
L. PADILLA: Letters and certificates and recommendations and I started making copies. I'd go say I'm going to make, like, 20 booklets. And I told Sasha, I said Sasha, you need to come over and help me put this package together because this is a lot of paper. We have papers all over the table, all over the floor.
JOHNSON: Finally last winter, David heard about a new effort known as Clemency Project 2014 to help people serving long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Authorities held out the promise of pardons or early release for inmates who would've been sentenced to less time if they committed crimes today. And pro bono lawyers were looking for prisoners who might make model cases. Attorney Jeremy Klatell describes why he took on this case.
JEREMY KLATELL: The consistency over the 18 years of David's incarceration with which he has dedicated to rehabilitating himself as a person can't really be faked. He's never had a single disciplinary infraction and we are utterly convinced that David is different person than he was 18 years ago.
JOHNSON: David's petition is now under review and though he's excited, prison has taught them to temper his emotions.
D. PADILLA: Everything is hurry up and wait - wait for the phone line, wait for the computers, wait to get to commissary. Patience is so important in here.
JOHNSON: He says he's in no rush. He's been waiting for 18 years and he doesn't want to set expectations too high.
D. PADILLA: My hope's to be with my family once again, to reestablish my household, to be the so-called captain of the ship one more time. That's my hope.
L. PADILLA: Hopefully we rebuild a new beginning - be able to hold hands or take a walk in the park, walk down the beach, you know, things that we miss.
JOHNSON: Lisette will show him the colors she painted the living room, the hardwood floors she sanded. She wants a new kitchen, but she says she's saving that job for him.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And senior producer Maria Penaloza co-reported that story.
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