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Op-ed: Mandatory minimums are a crime in themselves

Published January 20, 2017 6:18 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

America's criminal justice system is broken. Too many of our fellow citizens are rotting behind bars, unable to atone for their mistakes, contribute to their communities and lead lives of meaning and fulfillment. It's not just a crisis — it's a crime in and of itself.

If you don't believe us, just go to the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. There you'll see a trailer for a new documentary about Weldon Angelos and his firsthand experience with the criminal justice system.

As a lawyer with Koch Industries, I learned about Weldon Angelos when he became the poster child for the unfair and unjust sentences that are all too common, especially for low-level and nonviolent offenders.



Weldon is a 36-year-old father of three. Growing up in Utah, he knew he wanted to follow his passion and become a music producer. Unfortunately, he fell in with a rough crowd and began selling marijuana. In 2002, he sold a half-pound of the drug — worth about $350 — to a confidential informant. The informant also said that he had a firearm. The police arrested him, searched his home and eventually indicted him on 20 charges.

There can be no argument that Weldon broke the law — he admitted as much in court. Yet his eventual punishment in no way fits the crime. In 2004, at the age of 24, he was convicted of 16 charges. Several carried "mandatory minimum" punishments, which force judges to levy harsh and often arbitrary sentences.

Even though he was a first-time, nonviolent offender, Weldon Angelos received a staggering 55-year prison sentence with a release date of October 2051. He would have received a shorter sentence for being a murderer or terrorist.

The injustice was obvious even to the federal judge who handed it down. Judge Paul Cassell, a George W. Bush appointee, called the sentence "cruel, unjust and irrational." Hundreds of prosecutors, judges, state attorneys general and even governors have since highlighted this injustice.

Weldon's story, thankfully, has a happy ending. Last May, after 12 years in prison, a federal court granted him an immediate reduction to his sentence. In a show of true compassion, the federal prosecutor who prosecuted him in the first place initiated this effort. Weldon has since returned to his family and his life — a life that only months ago seemed would be spent behind bars.

Yet the laws behind such grossly unjust punishments are still on the federal books. So are many other mandatory sentencing laws. Rolling them back — or repealing them outright — is one of the most important reforms before Congress.

This is especially important for federal drug offenders, over 260,000 of whom have been sentenced under mandatory minimums. Distressingly, 86 percent of current drug offenders in federal prison committed nonviolent crimes, and the same number were low-level offenders.

The case against mandatory minimum sentencing laws is simple. While initially created with good intentions, they typically do far more harm than good.

Mandatory minimums empower prosecutors to a dangerous degree. They alone have the power to bring charges against offenders — if they bring ones associated with high mandatory minimums, the judge has little choice but to accept it, even if other charges might be more appropriate. Nowhere else in America's criminal justice system are judges and juries so powerless.

And while they are supposed to lower crime rates, studies have shown that mandatory minimums have had only a minor effect at best. Hardened criminals — the real bad guys — are still usually able to get favorable deals, while low-level ones get stuck with the harshest possible sentences. Last but not least, mandatory minimums create perverse incentives for the police themselves. If authorities truly felt Weldon was a threat to public safety, they would have arrested him the first time he sold marijuana to the informant. Instead, law enforcement allowed him to sell drugs two more times to enhance the sentence. This is fundamentally unjust.

The evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that mandatory minimums must be reformed, and fast. Congress has an opportunity to make law enforcement jobs less dangerous, enhance public safety for all, bring communities together, and help countless people improve their lives — people like Weldon Angelos. It's time to restore justice to America's criminal justice system.

Mark Holden is general counsel of Koch Industries.

 

 

 

 

 

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