A Major Step Toward Less Unjust Sentences

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


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.