In May 2002, Weldon Angelos made a mistake that would cost him 55 years of his life. He sold half a pound of marijuana to a police officer, and when he was caught, they found a firearm in his car.
Angelos was arrested – and, for selling marijuana, laundering money, and carrying a firearm, he was sentenced to 55 years in a federal prison.
Nobody wanted Angelos to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Even the judge who passed the sentence spoke out against it. But in the United States, we have mandatory minimum sentencing laws; and because of that, the judge wasn’t allowed any say in how long Angelos spent in jail.
But Senator Mike Lee wants to change those laws. He’s pushing a new bill to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences and let judges make decisions like this one for themselves, and he’s hopeful that he can get it passed before the end of the year.
Sen. Lee spoke with KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic about his First Step Act and what you can do to help make sure the bill passes.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws
Angelos’ 55-year sentence could have been even worse. He’d been hit with 20 different drug, firearm, and money laundering charges, each one tied to its own mandatory minimum sentence. If the judge had thrown the book at him, he would have been given 105 years behind bars.
55 years was the lowest amount of time Judge Paul G. Cassell could dole out, even though he thought it was far too severe. While he handed down the sentence, Cassell openly called it “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” And afterward, he spent years petitioning President Bush and, later, President Obama to commute it down to 18 years.
“I have yet to meet a single person, male or female, Democrat or Republican, old or young, who thinks that sentence was correct,” Lee says.
Thanks to tireless petitions from people like Cassell and Lee, Angelos’s sentence was ultimately commuted and he was set free in 2016. But Lee says he wants to make sure that it never happens to anyone again.
“When we have a system that can lock up people for 55 years at a time,” Lee told Dave & Dujanovic, “we’re actually further endangering ourselves.”
Those unnecessarily long sentences, Lee says, drain the already limited criminal law enforcement resources we have to keep the people safe.
In fact, if Angelos had stayed in prison for the full 55 years, his imprisonment was expected to cost the taxpayers $1.5 million.
Under America’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, judges don’t have many choices on how those resources are spent. Currently, anyone caught with five grams of methamphetamine, for example, must be sentenced to at least five years in prison for each charge a prosecutor throws at them.
“What we want to do is make sure the limited resources we have to enforce our criminal justice system,” Lee says, “are spent in an effective, efficient manner.”
Sen. Mike Lee’s First Step Act
Lee has been struggling to get his bill on the floor for the past eight years. He says that he has been slowly building up support among the Senate, at first by crossing the aisle and forming a coalition with Democrats, and later by slowly convincing his fellow Republicans to climb on board.
Little by little, he says, he’s been able to build up his coalition, and now he believes that he has enough support to make mandatory minimum sentencing a thing of the past.
All that remains is to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule the vote.
“We’re trying to convince him to schedule it for a vote between now and next year,” Lee says.
That timing is important to him because he wants to make sure his bill gets passed. The bill already has the support of President Trump, but Lee says that he’s worried that, if they wait until 2019 to pass the bill, a Democrat-controlled house might demand changes to the bill that might keep it from getting signed into law.
“I’d rather not roll the dice on this one,” Lee says. “If [McConnell] puts it up right now, it is a certainty.”
Lee says that he’s optimistic that the bill will put forward before the year ends and that, in short time, America will see the end of mandatory minimum sentencing. But, he warns, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.
“People need to be calling their senators and their congressmen across the country and asking them to encourage Mitch McConnell to bring it to the floor,” Lee says.
“I think the time has come,” Lee told Dave & Dujanovic. If the law goes through unchanged, he says, “it will pass.”
More to the story
If you missed Sen. Mike Lee live on KSL Newsradio, you can still catch everything he had to say on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.
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