As Congress explores reforming federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, it is important to consider the experiences of families impacted by these punishments.
My family has had its own crash course in these inflexible sentencing rules, as I recently testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
My brother, Weldon Angelos, age 34, is currently serving a mandatory minimum of 55 years in federal prison without parole, despite never committing or even threatening an act of violence.
Weldon and I were very close growing up. After our parents separated, Weldon became the backbone of our family unit.
He also developed into a very talented musician and was on his way to becoming a superstar in the recording industry. He had established a record label and wrote and recorded songs with artists like Snoop Dogg.
Unfortunately, he also used and sold marijuana.
In 2002, an individual later identified as a confidential police informant bought a total of $1,000 worth of marijuana from my brother on three occasions. The informant told Salt Lake City police that my brother had a gun during two of these sales. He saw one in his car and claimed he saw a gun in an ankle holster on another occasion. When police searched my brother’s house, they found two guns stored in a locked safe, and one gun in a locked briefcase.
Under federal law, one count of possessing a gun “in furtherance” of a drug crime adds a mandatory prison term of five years to the underlying sentence. Every count after the first adds another 25 years. In my brother’s case, having a gun in his car, in an ankle holster, and in his home were considered three separate offenses “in furtherance” of his drug sales. Thus, after being convicted of possessing a gun during the two sales and in his home, my brother received a sentence of 55 years (5+25+25) without parole in federal prison.
My brother deserved to be punished, but thanks to mandatory minimum laws, the judge had no discretion to avoid such an excessive sentence. The sentence applied even though Weldon had never been in trouble with the law before and had a young family and a promising career.
At the sentencing, federal Judge Paul Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said my brother deserved a stiff sentence — 8 to 10 years, based on the sentencing guidelines — but thought 55 years was absurd. Judge Cassell called Weldon’s punishment “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” He said that repeat child rapists and airplane hijackers get much shorter sentences.
Editor’s note: Judge Cassell left the bench in 2007 to become a law professor and victims’ rights advocate in Utah.
Weldon has been serving his sentence in Southern California, far from his family. His relationship with his children’s mother has not survived his incarceration.
His boys, who were 5 and 6 when he was sentenced, are now teenagers growing up without their father. Weldon talks with them every day, and I do everything I can to let them know that their father still loves and supports them, but no one in my family can fill Weldon’s shoes or give them what only a father can give them.
Weldon knows that it is his fault that he got into trouble, and he has to live with that pain and guilt.
But 55 years for selling marijuana, when no one was hurt or even threatened, is an absurd punishment. Federal mandatory minimum sentences for gun offenses can and do send people away for decades, even if the gun owner has a right to own the gun and never uses it to threaten or harm anyone. The laws fail to recognize that not everyone who owns or carries a gun is a violent criminal or drug kingpin.
At the Senate hearing earlier this month, former federal prosecutor Brett Tolman, also from Utah, explained how mandatory minimum sentencing laws create such unjust results.
Speaking about my brother’s case, Tolman said that prosecutors could have arrested Weldon after the first drug sale. Instead, they waited to arrest and charge him so that they could stack the mandatory gun enhancements to drive his sentence as high as they did.
Tolman said that the culture of many prosecutors’ offices rewards prosecutors who secure long sentences.
Where in this culture is the incentive to do justice?
At sentencing, judges should be able to consider whether a defendant actually uses or threatens to use a gun. Because mandatory minimum sentencing laws prevent judges from considering such facts, Congress should reform these laws immediately.
Lisa Angelos is the sister of Weldon Angelos, a federal prisoner serving 55 years in prison under federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. She lives in Sandy, Utah.