Sentencing Reform

A Major Step Toward Less Unjust Sentences

Bipartisan bills could help free Weldon Angelos and thousands of other drug offenders.

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In 2004 Weldon Angelos, a 25-year-old aspiring music producer in Salt Lake City with two young sons and no criminal record, was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison based on three marijuana sales to a government informant. Each sale consisted of eight one-ounce bags, for which the informant paid $350. So Angelos got more than two years for each ounce he sold, or 19 days for every dollar he received.

That jaw-dropping penalty was triggered by allegations that Angelos possessed a gun during the marijuana sales. Although he never brandished a gun, let alone fired one, mere possession was enough to make him guilty of using a firearm in the course of a drug trafficking offense, a crime for which Congress had prescribed draconian penalties: a five-year mandatory minimum for the first offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, with the sentences to be served consecutively.

For U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, the George W. Bush appointee who sentenced Angelos, the math was easy: 5 + 25 +25 = 55. But sending a young, first-time, low-level, nonviolent drug offender to prison for more than half a century, quite possibly for the rest of his life, was not. Calling the penalty "unjust, cruel, and irrational," Cassell urged President Bush to "commute Mr. Angelos' sentence to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment."

In an interview with ABC News last February, Cassell, who is now a law professor at the University of Utah, expanded on his objections to the sentence he was legally compelled to impose. "If he had been an aircraft hijacker," the former judge said, "he would have gotten 24 years in prison. If he'd been a terrorist, he would have gotten 20 years in prison. If he was a child rapist, he would have gotten 11 years in prison. And now I'm supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that's just not right."

Bipartisan legislation that was unveiled in the Senate two weeks ago and in the House last week would help mitigate injustices like the one that haunts Cassell, bringing a measure of proportionality to a system that sorely needs it. Although the legislation does not move as far in that direction as other bills introduced this year, it stands a much better chance of passing, since it has the backing of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a group that has been fighting the procrustean prescriptions of federal sentencing laws for nearly a quarter of a century, plausibly calls the Senate bill "the most significant piece of sentencing reform legislation in a generation."

For Angelos, who has been in prison more than a decade, the Grassley-backed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act could mean freedom a lot sooner than 2051, which is when he is currently expected to be released. The bill changes 18 USC 924(c), the provision under which Angelos was sentenced, so that the "enhanced mandatory minimum penalty" for using a gun during a drug crime does not apply unless the defendant was previously convicted of such an offense or "a crime of violence that contains as an element of the offense the carrying, brandishing, or use of a firearm." A defendant like Angelos, accused of repeatedly possessing a gun in a single case, would no longer be subject to the enhanced sentence (which the bill also reduces from 25 to 15 years). Since the changes are retroactive, Angelos could apply for resentencing, potentially shortening his term by up to 40 years.

Several other provisions of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are also retroactive. That's a big deal, because it means current prisoners could get out sooner than expected. In addition to helping people like Angelos, retroactivity sets an important precedent for future reforms: Once Congress has determined that certain sentences are unjust, people who are already serving them should not have to complete them.

Although that principle seems only fair and logical, Congress did not retroactively apply the shorter crack cocaine sentences it approved in 2010. That means thousands of people continue to serve sentences that pretty much everyone now agrees are too long. The new bill corrects that glaring omission, allowing prisoners sentenced under the old rules to seek shorter terms. FAMM says that provision alone could help up to 6,500 prisoners.

Current inmates also could benefit from provisions replacing the mandatory life sentence for a third drug offense with a 25-year term and reducing the mandatory minimum for a second drug offense from 20 to 15 years. The bill changes the prior convictions that trigger those penalties from any drug felony to any "serious drug felony" (defined as a drug offense with a maximum penalty of 10 years or more) or "serious violent felony." Another change that applies retroactively is a five-year reduction in the 15-year mandatory minimum for someone who possesses a gun after three convictions for "a violent felony or a serious drug offense."

The bill includes two other routes to early release for current prisoners. Inmates who meet certain criteria and participate in approved rehabilitative programs can earn small reductions in their time behind bars. The bill also loosens the criteria for "compassionate release" of older or terminally ill inmates.

Some changes apply only to future defendants. The bill widens the "safety valve" that lets certain low-level drug offenders escape mandatory minimums, making the limits on prior offenses less restrictive and giving judges the discretion to overlook otherwise disqualifying "criminal history points" if they conclude the score "substantially over-represents the seriousness of the defendant's criminal history or the likelihood that the defendant will commit other crimes." The bill also creates a new safety valve for nonviolent drug offenders who would otherwise be subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum, provided they did not play a major role in the offense and fully cooperate with the government.

These changes are modest compared to the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bill introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would have effectively abolished mandatory minimums by letting judges depart from them in the interest of justice. They are also modest compared to the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) that would have cut mandatory minimums for drug offenses in half. But the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act does include several elements of the latter bill, including crack retroactivity, a wider safety valve, and elimination of the mandatory life sentence for third-time drug offenders.

On the negative side, the Senate bill accedes to Grassley's demands by making some sentences longer. It creates two new mandatory minimums: five years for providing certain goods or services to terrorists and 10 years for "interstate domestic violence" resulting in death. It also increases, from 10 to 15 years, the maximum penalty for gun possession by various categories of people who are arbitrarily stripped of their Second Amendment rights under current law, including illegal drug users, undocumented immigrants, anyone who has ever been subjected to court-ordered psychiatric treatment, and anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony, violent or not. Apparently Grassley not only thinks it's reasonable to threaten millions of pot-smoking gun owners with prison but also thinks 10 years is not scary enough.

Despite the bill's flaws, FAMM is right that it represents a major improvement on the current system, making it less mindlessly punitive. "This bill isn't the full repeal of mandatory minimum sentences we ultimately need," says FAMM President Julie Stewart, "but it is a substantial improvement over the status quo and will fix some of the worst injustices created by federal mandatory sentences."

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

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13 responses to “A Major Step Toward Less Unjust Sentences

  1. And now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that’s just not right.

    And yet you did anyway. I wasn’t aware that judges were forbidden from resigning under threat of prosecution, because that’s the only remotely acceptable excuse.

    1. I only hope that this kind of shit makes it damn near impossible for these judges to sleep at night knowing the countless lives they have destroyed in the name of the state and its arbitrary rules, but somehow I doubt it.
      Bet his sons are growing up to be great upstanding citizens knowing the state threw their father in a cage for more than half a century for a trivial infraction of a completely ILLEGAL prohibition and an even more illicit war that is waged one sided upon the people who pay the taxes that pay for the ability to wage a war on the public. a war that is ONLY about money with no redeeming qualities.
      yeah im sure theyre doing just fine without their dad for the last decade
      what a fucking piece of shit that judge is, i hope he suffers with the guilt horribly

    2. True.

      Yes, he would have likely been reversed on appeal but the worst penalty he could have faced — impeachment — likely would not have occurred. You have to be an objectively horrible person to be impeached as a judge, taking overtly political stands isn’t sufficient.

    3. Herbert Hoover was sworn in right after Congress made beer a major narcotics felony with the Wesley Livsey Jones (R-WA) 5 years & $10000 mandatory minimum law. Hoover invited the fanatical Senator Jones to the White House right after his inauguration. Al Capone was immediately questioned about taxes, causing a “crash”* in the stock market which crashed again later that year–once investors realized the juggernaut was headed for their assets and holdings. Ten grand equaled 484oz gold which at $1165/oz is $563,892 current dollars–the fine assessed for a keg of beer. Of course, their motives were “noble” in that it was for the “public good.” The GOP and Dems are destroying the national economy while trampling individual rights!

      *The April Time Magazine reported a stock market “crash” occurred Tuesday March 26, 1929, WSJ reported on it 3/27.

    1. and pardon the POWs

      1. Yes. Last I looked both those things were in the Libertarian Party platform.

  2. How about A Major Step Toward Fewer Unjust Sentences?

  3. Mitt Romney’s Utah, a wholly-owned subsidiary of religious fanaticism, in 2009 charged a 17-year-old girl known in court filings as J.M.S. with attempted murder for paying for her own attempted abortion. This was the last state to finally ratify the 21st Amendment which transferred beer Prohibition to State governments desiring to commit suicide. Cruel end unusual punishment is exactly what Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in the Utah State House imposed when the judge was forced against his will to obey the mandatory minimums law for exercising second amendment rights while surrounded by superstitious scolders of the Demon Weed. Salt Lake City is where a cop killed peaceful, unarmed Dillon Taylor, shot in the back with a government firearm and get paid vacations for the “justified” killing. This is where the GOP went for its latest presidential candidate after Bush collapsed the entire economy in an orgy of asset forfeiture.

  4. $350 for 8 ounces doesn’t sound like very good weed to me even in 2004.

  5. Vices are not crimes. (Lysander Spooner) Would someone in Congress please explain to me why we no longer have inalienable rights. How does non-violent, non-coercive, non-larcenous, consensual adult behavior rise to the level of criminal activity? The so-called war on drugs is in fact a war on rights. If we own the property of our bodies and minds then we can do with them whatever we want just so long as we do not violate the rights of others. There should be no prison sentence for consensual adult behavior that does not violate the rights of others. Otherwise, the United States should adopt this for its motto: All hail the police state! (Dissenters will be shot.)

    Further, marijuana versus alcohol: Alcohol is the drug most likely to cause violent behavior merely from its use, not marijuana. Judges, prosecutors, police officers, and politicians are notorious for their use of alcohol. If the government has the legitimate power to legislate morality then we need to put the most money where the problem is the biggest. Bring back alcohol prohibition you incredible ignorant pandering fools.

    (Sorry. I got a bit upset there.)

  6. “…less unjust sentences”

    Does that mean sentences that aren’t as unjust as they might otherwise be, or FEWER unjust sentences?

  7. Well finally we are getting somewhere, too many average citizens locked up in prison for simple marijuana possession. Here in Boise Idaho we have a great system for addicts in drug courts. I am grateful criminal lawyers like Steve Johnson at http://boiseattorneygroup.com are there to help us through difficult times.

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