Who will the criminal justice bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday help? Perhaps someone like Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 2004 for selling about $1,000 of marijuana while possessing a gun. Angelos never used a gun during the deals, and his only previous charge was nonviolent — for possessing a firearm as a juvenile. But merely possessing guns during three marijuana busts was enough to impose a decades-long sentence.
Specifically, Angelos would benefit from one of the most promising parts of the bill: the reduction of firearm possession penalties known as stacking sentences. It's true that gun control appears to reduce gun-related deaths, according to the empirical research. But these charges have nothing to do with gun control — they are, instead, more about drug trafficking.
As Families Against Mandatory Minimums explains, anyone caught possessing a firearm while drug trafficking can have decades added to his prison sentence. And firearm possession is interpreted very loosely under these statutes: Someone doesn't have to be in direct possession of a gun, but may have a gun in his car or even house when he's selling drugs — and still be punished as if he's carrying a gun at the time of the drug deal.
That's exactly what happened to Angelos. He never fired his guns, and they weren't even on him during two of three drug busts. But they still led to a 55-year sentence.
Angelos is the exact type of person the Senate bill would help
In 2002, police caught Angelos selling marijuana while allegedly possessing a firearm in three separate stings. Police said he had an ankle holster with a gun during the second sting, but the guns in the other stings were found in his car and house.
But federal prosecutors stacked each of these stings into three offenses, with all the charges adding up to a 55-year minimum prison sentence with no chance of parole. Once Angelos was found guilty, federal law required a judge to impose the sentence, regardless of whether he thought it was appropriate. He left behind two sons and a promising music career when he went to prison.
Paul Cassell, the retired federal judge who tried Angelos's case, told ABC News that the sentence haunts him to this day: "I do think about Angelos. I sometimes drive on the interstate by the prison where he's held, and I think, 'That wasn't the right thing to do, and the system forced me to do it.'"
But despite pleas — some from Cassell — for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to commute Angelos's sentence, he continues serving it to this day.
"If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison," Cassell explained. "If he had 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."
So Angelos is the exact type of person the Senate bill would help. The bill repeals stacking firearm sentences for people who weren't previously convicted of and served a sentence for a drug or violent offense, and cuts these sentences from the current mandatory minimum of 25 years to 15 years. And best of all, it's retroactive — so if the bill passes, Angelos could finally be set free.