Personal Freedom

The Absolute Madness of Mandatory Minimums

Weldon Angelos was a Salt Lake City resident who grew up in poverty and struggled to find his way early in life. The son of a Greek immigrant, his family’s financial condition left him wanting much as a child. He found some success as a rap musician, and around the same time began to sell marijuana to make extra cash—to better provide for his own children, he claims.

In 2002 he sold three half-pound bags, worth a total of $350 at the time, to a police informant—an individual who faced his own drug charges but was courting favor of his prosecutors by assisting in catching other alleged criminals. Weldon was arrested by local police officers working in tandem with federal agents.

The informant claimed that Angelos was carrying a gun during the transaction—a claim not substantiated by any evidence. Yet this claim alone served as basis to impose mandatory minimum sentences during prosecution, as Congress had imposed harsh punishments for gun-related drug offenses in hopes of deterring the behavior.

The jury found Angelos guilty of the charges brought against him, and in 2004 the 24-year-old Angelos was brought for sentencing. Judge Paul Cassell’s hands were tied as a result of the mandatory minimums, and he was required to impose a 55-year prison sentence on Angelos. But Cassell didn’t like it.

“The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” he 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…. To correct what appears to be an unjust sentence, the court also calls on the President to commute Mr. Angelos’s sentence to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment.”

President Bush did not commute the sentence, and Angelos remains in prison to this day. He is projected to be released from prison in the year 2051.

“Nothing could be worse than this,” Angelos stated in an interview just one year into his incarceration. “Even death offers a certain tranquility. I’m not talking about this prison. Just being locked up. Watching your kids grow up, your girl move on, that’s the hardest part right there.”

Angelos did not rape, rob, kidnap, or murder anybody. Had he committed any of those violent crimes, there’s a high probability that he would be serving a shorter sentence. Instead, his alleged offense was a commercial transaction of a natural plant with a consenting adult. For this, taxpayers are being required to subsidize his entire life as he is confined to a cage.

Another reluctant judge

Kepa Maumau was an up-and-coming running back in Salt Lake City with plans to play football at Weber State University. Those dreams were derailed when he committed three armed robberies with the notorious Tongan Crip Gang. The jury convicted Maumau of numerous crimes, but the multiple counts of using or carrying a firearm during a violent crime triggered the mandatory minimum requirements imposed by the federal government.

Rebecca Skordas, Maumau’s defense attorney, lashed out in court against the mandatory minimum sentences. “This is absurd. It’s just not right,” she said. “We as a society have failed when we send a young man to prison for 57 years.”

As in Angelos’ case, the judge in Maumau’s prosecution noted, “I can’t change it.”

With no previous felonies to his name, Maumau was sentenced with over half a century in a government cage. He will be 81 years old when finally released. Now imprisoned in California, Maumau’s 57-year sentence equates to a $2.7 million burden on taxpayers.

The history

Judges customarily have a significant amount of discretion in determining the sentence to be imposed upon a person found guilty of a crime. In this manner, punishments may be individualized to fit the specific circumstances involved in the case, taking into account the criminal’s history (if any), attitude, and other important factors.

This system changed in 1984 when Congress aimed to “structure” the “previously unfettered sentencing discretion accorded federal trial judges.” This legislative body passed the Sentencing Reform Act which created the United States Sentencing Commission. The USSC’s role was to create national sentencing guidelines that federal trial judges would be required to follow.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this sentencing system unconstitutional in United States v. Booker on grounds that it violated the Sixth Amendment’s right to jury trial. The Court found that this right requires that only the facts and prior convictions may be used to calculate a sentence—not an arbitrary and external guideline system.

Since the Court’s ruling, the USSC’s role has become advisory, yet still largely followed by federal judges.

An opportunity for reform

In an era of packed prisons and pervasive prosecutions, more politicians are reconsidering the status quo.

Senator Mike Lee, for example, has co-sponsored legislation to reform mandatory minimums. “Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder also called for reform. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system,” he said, “widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden—totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone—and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.” Holder called mandatory minimums “draconian,” “counterproductive” and “excessive.”

We echo these charges and find the current sentencing structure to be rigid and repulsive to individual liberty. Punishments should fit the crimes and circumstances involved, and the imposition of mandatory minimums violates what should be an individualized process. We applaud Senator Lee’s leadership on this issue and encourage all of Utah’s federal delegation to line up in support of this reform effort.