If Obama Cares About Unjust Drug Sentences, Why Is Weldon Angelos Still Behind Bars?

Nine years ago, Weldon Angelos, a
24-year-old rap music entrepreneur in Salt Lake City,
was sentenced to
55 years in federal prison for three small-time marijuana sales. In
letter released
today, 113 concerned citizens, including 60 former prosecutors, 17
former judges, seven former state attorneys general, and four
former governors, remind President Obama that he has the power to
free Angelos, whose case is frequently cited to illustrate the
injustices resulting from mandatory minimum sentences.

U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who imposed what may well
amount to a life sentence on Angelos, called it “unjust, cruel, and
even irrational” but noted that his hands were tied by the
mandatory minimums Congress prescribed for people who engage in
drug trafficking while possessing a gun: five years for the first
offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense. Angelos, a
first-time offender, had a handgun concealed under his clothing
during two pot sales; the third count was tied to guns police found
when they searched his home. He never brandished a gun, let alone
fired one, and no one but Angelos and his family suffered as a
result of the marijuana sales, which involved a total of a pound
and a half. The letter urging Obama to commute Angelos’
sentence, which was organized by the Constitution Project,
highlights the perversity of the penalty he received:

Had Mr. Angelos been charged in [a Utah] court…he would have
been paroled years ago. Indeed, Mr. Angelos’s sentence is longer
than the punishment imposed on far more serious federal offenses
and offenders. His term of imprisonment exceeds the federal
sentence for, among others, an aircraft hijacker, a second-degree
murderer, a kidnapper, and a child rapist. Incredibly, Mr.
Angelos’s sentence is longer than those imposed for three aircraft
hijackings, three second-degree murders, three kidnappings, or
three rapes. In fact, the 55-year sentence for possessing a firearm
three times in connection with minor marijuana offenses is more
than twice the federal sentence for a kingpin of a major drug
trafficking ring in which a death results, and more than four times
the sentence for a marijuana dealer who shoots an innocent person
during a drug transaction.

That’s right: Angelos would have been treated less severely if
he had shot the police informant posing as a customer instead of
selling him pot twice more. The sentence was so egregious, the
letter notes, that in 2006 “a group of 145 individuals—including
former U.S. Attorneys General, retired U.S. Circuit Court Judges,
retired U.S. District Court judges, a former Director of the FBI,
former U.S. Attorneys, and other former high-ranking U.S. Justice
Department officials—submitted a brief amici curiae in
support of Mr. Angelos’s case.”

As the letter points out, Angelos’ 55-year prison term is
precisely the sort of grossly disproportionate penalty that Obama
decried before he was elected president. In a 2007
at Howard University, for example, Obama noted that
George W. Bush had at one point questioned long sentences for
first-time drug offenders. “I agree with George W. Bush,” Obama
said. “The difference is he hasn’t done anything about it. When I’m
President, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we
can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive
warehousing of nonviolent offenders.” Has he delivered on that

In 2010, to Obama’s credit, he signed the Fair Sentencing Act,
which reduced (but did not eliminate) the irrational sentencing
disparity between the snorted and smoked forms of cocaine. But
since that law passed Congress almost unanimously, supporting it
did not take much courage. Last August, four and half years into
Obama’s presidency, his attorney general, Eric Holder,
a new policy under which federal prosecutors are
supposed to exclude drug weights from charges against certain
low-level, nonviolent offenders to avoid triggering mandatory
minimums. That policy, assuming that U.S. attorneys comply with it,
has the potential to
the prison terms of about 500 people, 2 percent of the
25,000 federal drug offenders sentenced each year.

But Obama has conspicuously failed to use his commutation power
to shorten sentences that he and Holder have both called
excessively long—including those imposed on crack offenders before
passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which did not apply
retroactively. He has issued only
one commutation
and 39 pardons in
nearly five years, which so far makes him the least merciful
president in U.S. history (once you exclude, as seems only fair,
the first president’s first term and the abbreviated terms of two
presidents who died shortly after they were elected).

In light of Obama’s amazingly stingy clemency
, this kowtowing passage from the Constitution Project’s
letter is laughable (although I understand why it was

We recognize that the executive clemency power has been
besmirched in recent years by a few tawdry cases. But we also know
that you, as a former constitutional law professor and keen student
of history, appreciate the vital function that clemency plays in
our tripartite system of checks and balances.

The letter includes 28 footnotes, but none of them provides
evidence to back up that assertion, because there is precious
little. Obama still has time to provide some more, and freeing
Weldon Angelos would be a good place to start.

from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/11/13/if-obama-cares-about-unjust-drug-sentenc

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