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Cruel, but Not That Unusual

A 25-year-old Utah man sold eight-ounce bags of marijuana on three occasions to an undercover officer. This week he was sentenced to 55 years in prison because he had a pistol strapped to his ankle during the deals.

That’s more time than he would have received if he had hijacked a plane, beaten someone to death in a fight, detonated a bomb in an aircraft and provided weapons to support a foreign terrorist organization. The maximum sentence for all those crimes together is less than the mandatory minimum under federal sentencing rules for a small-time dope dealer carrying a gun. Those federal rules make California’s three-strikes law -- recently upheld by voters -- look mild.

Weldon Angelos had no criminal record and never brandished the gun or threatened anyone. But although federal sentencing guidelines -- which allow for judicial flexibility -- recommend 10 years for a crime like his, a separate statute, more recently enacted, sets tougher mandatory minimums for drug felonies involving guns.

At Angelos’ sentencing in Salt Lake City, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell decried the required 55-year term as so “unjust, cruel and even irrational” that he has appealed to President Bush to commute the sentence and to Congress to modify the law so that its harshest provisions “apply only to true recidivist drug offenders.”

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That seems unlikely, given the current political climate. The Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines. If those flexible guidelines are struck down, some legislators intend to try to replace them with a raft of new, tougher mandatory sentences.

A product of the “war on drugs” and federal sentencing reforms, stiff mandatory minimums were enacted 20 years ago to send a message about the severity of drug crimes and prevent a judge’s philosophy or a defendant’s background from influencing sentencing decisions. But what they really do is take discretion from judges and hand it to prosecutors, who can dictate the length of a prison term by the roster of charges they choose to file.

Angelos initially faced only a single gun charge, but when he refused a plea deal that came with a 15-year term, the government loaded his case with four new gun charges. Because federal law limits parole, Angelos will remain behind bars until he is at least 78 years old.

Outrage is growing in legal circles over the lopsided nature of mandatory terms. A group of 29 former federal judges and prosecutors filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Angelos’ case, asking Cassell to reject the mandatory sentence because it violates Angelos’ right to due process and constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

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Earlier this year, an American Bar Assn. commission urged the repeal of mandatory terms, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has declared them “in too many cases ... unwise and unjust.”

Fairness aside, do we really want to spend $1.3 million to keep someone like Angelos locked up for the rest of his life?

Congress should revamp the topsy-turvy system of mandatory minimums and restore reason to the sentencing process.


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