Following Obama Administration clemency, Alaska man returns home after a decade behind bars

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - For the last decade, the family of Benjamin Meneses III has eagerly awaited his return to Alaska.

"We're probably 50-plus (family members) up here in Alaska," said Benjamin's brother, Erik Meneses. "He's got a big, big support group up here. Just gotta get here."

Benjamin, now 37 years old, was convicted and sent to federal prison in 2007 - when he was just 26 - for distribution of a controlled substance: The year before, he'd been caught selling about 54 grams of cocaine base, or crack, in the parking lot of an Anchorage grocery store. Federal court documents show he'd sold the drugs for $1,850.

He later took a deal and pleaded guilty to the charge, which carried a minimum sentence of 10 years' time in federal prison.

"The way the laws were set up," Erik Meneses said, "it was really unfair. Before he got [sic] pardoned, if someone got the same charges he did, they would've gotten out before my brother would."

The sentence duration was doubled if the offender had a prior drug conviction, as was the case with Meneses, who'd been charged with Misconduct involving a Controlled Substance in the Fourth Degree in 1999.

"The penalties for crack were very, very high," said former U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska Karen Loeffler, "and that was in response to violence - trying to decrease violence in the community."

"Public safety is not a football," she said. "It's something everybody wants."

Meneses, though, arrived back in his home state on Wednesday evening.

That's because, in December of 2016, then-President Barack Obama commuted Meneses' sentence to expire on Dec.19 of 2018, contingent on Meneses' enrollment in a drug treatment program.

Obama also commuted, or lowered the penalties, in 152 other U.S. cases. He also pardoned 78 individuals, wiping out their convictions altogether.

"They started looking back through cases," Loeffler said, "and gave an opportunity to ask the Office of the Pardon Attorney to reduce some of the longer sentences. And there were criteria, obviously; you weren't looking at violent people."

Thus, instead of 20 years, it was 10 that his family had to wait before Benjamin was able to return to the Last Frontier. And, while one of only a handful from Alaska, the clemency was part of 1,715 total granted under the Obama Administration - the most by any president in United States history.

"I feel like - I can't even explain," Benjamin said when he arrived at the airport Wednesday. "It just was happy, happiness. I get to start over, be a better man."

While Loeffler said she was unable to comment on Meneses' case due to confidentiality restrictions, she said there are good reasons - aside from financial gain - that the Obama Administration granted so many commutations and pardons.

"In essence, it was a replacement for parole commission that doesn't exist anymore under federal law," Loeffler said. "That's what parole used to do. This person is doing well. We want to get them back into the community."

While Meneses' case was tried at the federal level, new updates to State of Alaska clemency processes have also be implemented upon the start of 2018. Details and renewed guidelines on how to apply are available at the Dept. of Corrections Parole Board website.

Video by Channel 2 photojournalist Phil Walczak.

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