SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee was still a federal prosecutor when he first heard about Weldon Angelos.

Angelos, a 23-year-old music producer and father of three young children, was arrested in Utah in 2002 for selling dime bags of marijuana to a confidential police informant while carrying a gun. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Judge Paul G. Cassell wrote a blistering opinion disagreeing with the harsh sentence he was forced to impose: “The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel and even irrational,” it said. “It is also far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape.”

But Angelos’ conviction came with a “mandatory minimum” sentence, part of a system of non-negotiable rules dictating specific prison terms for specific crimes. The judge said his hands were tied — he had no choice but to impose what amounted to a lifetime behind bars.

But then the judge said something else: “Only Congress can fix this problem.”

Lee, R-Utah, said those words would “haunt” him. He had seen severe sentences handed down before, but when a colleague told him about the Angelos case, the punishment struck him as “plainly excessive,” and caused a significant shift in Lee’s attitude toward mandatory minimum sentences.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., center, talks with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, right, before they participate in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, on prison reform legislation. A criminal justice bill passed in the Senate gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts.

When Lee was elected to the Senate in 2010, the words of the judge still rang clear in his mind, he told the Deseret News. He began to look for allies to help reform the criminal justice system.

“When the public sees judges handing out unfair punishments, it undermines trust in the entire public system,” Lee wrote in a Fox News op-ed. “Incarceration is an essential law enforcement tool that protects communities and keeps families safe. But it also inflicts costs on communities and families, and at some point the negative impact of incarceration on marriage and family can become too stark to ignore.”

Eight years later, in 2018, Congress passed the bipartisan First Step Act, the first major criminal justice overhaul in decades, co-authored and co-sponsored by Lee. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 21, 2018.

Lee recounted Angelos’ story “hundreds of times” to generate support for the cause on both sides of the aisle, he said.

And it was with Angelos in mind that he wrote the portion of the act that modified mandatory minimum sentences. The act also broadened job training and expanded early-release programs for federal prisoners.

Lee and Angelos didn’t meet in person until 2016, when Angelos was unexpectedly released …read more

Source:: Deseret News – Utah News


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How a Salt Lake City drug dealer’s 55-year sentence inspired Utah Sen. Mike Lee to change America’s criminal justice system

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