Weldon Angelos could have spent 55 years in federal prison for selling marijuana — until reform advocates, President Barack Obama, and a federal court intervened to abruptly cut his sentence short at 12 years.
Angelos, who’s from Utah, had become a public face of America’s broken and excessive criminal justice system. His was one of the stories that Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah often cited in making the case for federal criminal justice reform.
"A man who's a dedicated father, a man who wants to live a good life," Lee said in a meeting with Angelos late last month. "I think it helps people understand the human element of this."
As Roll Call and the Washington Post reported, a federal court intervened in Angelos’s case upon President Obama’s urging and advocacy from Lee and groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, getting Angelos released from prison early in June. "I feel like I’m in a dream," Angelos said. "Me and my sons, we sit and hug each other, and smile all day."
Angelos was caught selling marijuana while allegedly possessing, but never using, a gun three times in three separate stings in 2002. Federal prosecutors stacked each sting into three major 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. Angelos left behind a music career — as the founder of a new hip-hop label — when he went to prison.
The circumstances drove the judge who tried Angelos’s case, Paul Cassell, to condemn the sentence. "I do think about Angelos," Cassell told ABC News in 2015. "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.’"
It is a rare and extreme example of federal laws stretched to their limits to produce a totally ludicrous sentence — essentially 55 years for selling three dime bags of pot. But that the sentence was even possible shows the absurdities of a criminal justice system far too motivated to be "tough on crime."
"Politicians are instinctively inclined to want to be viewed as tough on crime," Lee said in his meeting with Angelos. "We have to understand being tough on crime, fighting wisely against crime doesn’t always entail increasing penalties and decreasing the amount of discretion that a judge can exercise in a particular case."
But as Lee and Angelos pointed out, there are other people languishing in federal prisons for up to decades for other nonviolent crimes (although most prisoners are in state prisons for violent offenses). And they won’t have the benefit of a presidential intervention to get their sentences reduced.
Yet the system and laws appear likely to remain this way for now: Despite a bipartisan push, a relatively mild bill has failed to get anywhere in America’s gridlocked Congress.