This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
So Weldon Angelos won't serve my 55-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence after all. Fortunately, justice has been done in his particular case. But Congress needs to enact systemic reforms to address the problems with these kinds of sentences in all cases. And while Congress' attention is focused on criminal justice reform, it would also do well to enact comprehensive reforms in other areas as well.
The dénouement to the Angelos case was a serendipitous one. In 2004, draconian federal sentencing laws forced me to sentence Angelos to a 55-year jail term for having a gun at three marijuana deals. I criticized the sentence at the time, and so was happy to see federal prosecutors figure out some maneuver to cut Angelos a break from what the law otherwise required.
Recent news coverage has shown how excited Angelos' boys are to have him back in their lives. But the taxpayers, too, have reason to celebrate. The shortening of his sentence has saved more than $1 million in incarceration costs money that can certainly be put to better use elsewhere.
While all has now been put to the good in the Angelos case, the resolution of his case came down to chance. For other cases, the stars may not so neatly align. The same laws that forced me to impose the 55-year-sentence on Angelos remain on the books today harming defendants and taxpayers alike. Fortunately, Congress has before it several different bills that all address the problems (such as a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee) that should be speedily enacted.
But while Congress is addressing mandatory minimum sentences, it should also pass other federal criminal justice reforms as well. One important improvement concerns so-called mens rea reform that is, making sure that federal laws have criminal intent requirements to protect morally innocent actors from being prosecuted for unwittingly breaking the law. In recent years Congress and federal agencies have created countless crimes that lack adequate mens rea protections. This trend places all Americans at risk of prosecution for doing things they had no idea were wrong.
While the Salt Lake Tribune has been tireless in its pushing for mandatory minimum reform, it recently criticized Sen. Orrin Hatch for his effort to also address the mens rea issue. To be sure, reasonable people can differ about precisely how to draft such reforms. But the underlying principle is one that deserves broad support. Mens rea reform needs to be part of the congressional conversation.
And while Congress is addressing the criminal justice system, it should enact the Amy and Vicky Act, sponsored by Sens. Hatch and Charles Schumer. The bill would ensure that victims of child pornography crimes receive the restitution they deserve. The bill was the first piece of legislation to pass through the Senate during this Congress by a vote of 98-0. But remarkably, more than a year later, the bill remains stalled in the House.
Hopefully in the near future, Senate and House negotiators will sit down and resolve differences in their approaches to these critical issues. This may be a unique time in history, where the attention of both parties in Congress is focused on criminal justice. Congress should not miss the opportunity to reform sentencing laws, add mens rea protections, and expand criminal restitution for crime victims. The system is too important to too many people to strive for anything less.
Paul G. Cassell was a U.S. District Court Judge in Utah from 2002 to 2007 and is currently a professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.