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In announcing a sweeping criminal justice bill Thursday that would reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders, Sen. Mike Lee harkened back to his days as an assistant U.S. attorney in Utah.
He consulted with colleagues on the case of Weldon Angelos, then a 23-year-old music producer who sold marijuana to an undercover officer three times over 72 hours. During two of the exchanges, he carried a gun.
Convicted in 2004, Angelos, a first-time offender, received a minimum mandatory sentence of 55 years. He is now 36 and housed in a medium security prison in Mendota, Calif.
"This man clearly had made a mistake and yet he didn't deserve to be in prison until he was 80," Lee, a Republican, said explaining his motivation for joining the bipartisan effort.
Lee, one of the Senate's most conservative members, says the prison population has exploded by more than 800 percent since 1980 because of the "over-criminalization of the law, the over-federalization of criminal law and the excessive use of minimum mandatories."
Lee said the compromise bill would reduce the federal prison population and better prepare inmates for life outside.
It may also help Angelos return to his family well before his 80th birthday.
Angelos' sentence was so long because he was convicted of three counts, which included an enhancement for repeat offenses. So the first charge gave him five years and the next two added 25 each, even though he had no prior convictions.
This new bill would get rid of that enhancement for first-time offenders and it would apply retroactively, meaning Angelos' sentence could be dropped to 15 years. He's already served 12 years in prison.
Lisa Angelos, Weldon's sister, said she is still hoping President Barack Obama commutes her brother's sentence this year, but if that doesn't happen, she sees this legislation as a possible Plan B.
"That is just amazing," she said. "Mike Lee is truly a wonderful person. It will help so many people, not just Weldon."
Lee said Angelos wasn't a drug kingpin and he was not violent. He said minimum mandatories in this case "produced a pretty excessive sentence under any objective standard. It is just really out of control."
The Utah senator said he wanted to cut non-violent minimum mandatories in half. He introduced such a bill with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., two years ago. But Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley refused to go that far.
Through months of negotiations, a team of senators including Lee crafted a bill that cuts five years off of the most stringent minimum mandatories and gives judges more leeway on cases involving non-violent drug dealers and users.
"It still accomplishes a great deal of what we set out to accomplish," Lee said. "It just does so in a different way."
Life sentences under a "three-strikes" law would drop to 25 years, while 20-year mandatory sentences would decline to 15 years and judges would have more discretion on cases that fall below 10-year sentences.
"This is the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation," Grassley said Thursday. "It is a product of a very thoughtful bipartisan deliberation."
The bill offers new programs that would allow some federal inmates to reduce their sentences for good behavior and training programs that should ease their transition when they are released.
The legislation also would restrict the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and would allow inmates convicted for using or selling crack to get a reduction in sentences to match those convicted of using or selling cocaine.
In a nod to Grassley, the legislation would allow state-level crimes to count against a convict as part of minimum mandatories and it boost the sentences for terrorism crimes.
This bill would only affect inmates in the federal system, which makes up about 10 percent of those incarcerated nationwide.
Durbin, the assistant minority leader, thanked Lee, calling them "a political odd couple" and Lee returned the favor, saying, "I'm especially grateful for Senator Durbin, my ally on this from the beginning."
Throughout the news conference that included four Democrats and four Republicans, senators noted that this is how Congress should work people with different ideas compromising to create a bill that would help the nation.
And yet, while Durbin said he believes their compromise can win Senate approval, he was unsure of its prospects in the Republican House. Lee is optimistic, noting that criminal justice reform isn't partisan. It is popular in tea party circles and backed by Obama.
Similar, state-level bills have swept the nation, with Utah being the 30th state to pass a law meant to ease penalties for drug crimes and boost treatment.
Utah's law went into effect Thursday. Similar to the federal bill, Utah's law requires state inmates to go through a risk assessment that shuttles some into treatment and education programs.
The conservative embrace of criminal justice reform has often been tied to efforts to reduce the spending on corrections. And Lee clearly supports that, saying: "We can make our criminal justice efforts, our law enforcement efforts, more effective and efficient when we don't lock people up for more time than is necessary."
But Lee said he's focused on "the human costs" of locking up offenders for decades, saying that unnecessarily long sentences hurt families.