Last week, Utah record producer Weldon Angelos, who received a mandatory minimum sentence of 55 years for three marijuana deals totaling a pound and a half, was released 35 years early. While President Obama has shortened the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent felons in the past two years, he notably left Angelos off the list, despite his status as one of the nation’s most famous nonviolent drug offenders.
“We are overjoyed to see Weldon reunited with his family, and we join Lisa Angelos, who never stopped fighting for her brother, and the entire family in celebrating his release,” declared Andrew Clark, president of the conservative youth organization Generation Opportunity.
The organization produced a documentary on the Angelos case last year. Clark called for reform of the criminal justice system, and noted how Angelos unfortunately became the poster boy of the need for that reform. The youth organization also cited research showing that “federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws disproportionately impact young, non-violent offenders, communities of color, and impoverished individuals.”
“Our nation has a broken criminal justice system that leaves too many people behind bars, serving sentences that aren’t proportional to the crime,” Clark declared. “As an organization that fights for the freedoms and opportunities of young Americans, we remain steadfast in our efforts to fix the injustices of an outdated legal system.”
Angelos became a symbol of the severity and alleged unfairness of mandatory minimum sentences. He sold eight ounces of pot to a government informant on three different occasions, and he allegedly carried a pistol during one sale and had guns nearby during the other two. Although he never brandished the weapons or hurt anyone with them, prosecutors charged him with three counts of using a firearm in the course of a drug trafficking offense.
Although the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City offered him a 15-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, he refused, and prosecutors hit him with charges of 20 different counts carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of 105 years! A jury convicted him of 16 counts, along with the gun charges.
Using a firearm in the course of drug trafficking carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, sentences that must be served consecutively. The very judge who sentenced Angelos to 55 years in prison attacked the law which forced him to do so as “unjust and cruel and even irrational.”
Angelos was a 24-year-old first time offender when sentenced, and he is now 36. His three children — a baby girl and two young boys when he went to prison — are now 13, 17, and 19. Based on time credits for good behavior, Angelos was expected to be released on November 18, 2015, at age 72.
In order to prevent situations like this, Generation Opportunity has championed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation in the House (H.R. 3713) and the Senate (S.2123). “These bills would reduce mandatory penalties for low-level, nonviolent offenses, and correct federal statute laws that led to Weldon’s excessively long sentence,” Clark told PJ Media in an email statement.
“These bills provide real front-end reforms to ensure that our sentencing laws promote public safety and prevent the wrong people from ending up in prison for as long as Weldon did,” the Generation Opportunity president added.
Angelos’ case has brought attention to the issue of criminal justice reform and various groups, both liberal and conservative, have called for a more lenient sentence. As The Washington Post reported, “Three years ago, more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, former elected and appointed government officials, and prominent authors, scholars, activists and business leaders signed a letter urging Obama to grant Angelos commutation.”
Next Page: Why did Obama overlook this important case?
Despite having commuted the sentences of 348 federal inmates so far (according to Reason magazine), President Obama did not honor the letter. The details of Angelos’ release are not yet public, but it appears a federal prosecutor had second thoughts and somehow commuted his sentence.
President Obama may have decided to avoid involvement in the Angelos case because of the connection with firearms. If so, the president has shown cowardice or pure anti-gun calculation in avoiding one of the clearest examples of a miscarriage of justice.
In calling for the commutation of Angelos’ sentence, Generation Opportunity joined many liberal organizations like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) seeking criminal justice reform. “We work with groups across the political spectrum because criminal justice reform is not a right or left issue, but an issue of fairness,” the group’s president explained.
“We believe the punishment should fit the crime and the most important way to achieve that goal is to implement the types of bipartisan reforms that have already been passed in conservative states like Texas and Georgia, where they reduced both their prison size and crime,” Clark declared.
The Generation Opportunity president praised a particular politician for drawing attention to the case. “Senator Mike Lee should be praised for leading a bipartisan coalition in the Senate to pass real reform as well as educating the public about Weldon Angelos’ unjust sentence,” Clark told PJ Media.
Despite Obama’s holding back on the Angelos case, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston also argued for criminal justice reform. “Despite these important efforts, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system,” Eggleston wrote. “There remain thousands of men and women in federal prison serving sentences longer than necessary, often due to overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences.”
Obama has granted more commutations than the previous seven presidents combined, which makes his distance from the Angelos case a real head-scratcher.
“After three and a half years of inaction on Weldon’s clemency petition, he is free because of the fair and good action of a prosecutor,” Mark W. Olser, Angelos’ lawyer, told The Washington Post. “He returns to citizenship because of the actions of one individual–just not the individual I was expecting. Weldon’s freedom is a wonderful thing but remains just one bright spot among many continuing tragedies.”
Angelos himself delivered a statement through Generation Opportunity. “I’m eternally grateful for the tireless efforts of my sister, Lisa, my family, and the individuals and organizations who never gave up on me,” the man declared. “There is no greater feeling than holding my sons, who were little kids when I was put away, and watching my older son graduate from high school.”
“Now that my long nightmare has ended, and I am back where I belong, I want to help ensure that other men and women who have been dealt unfair sentences are given the justice they deserve,” Angelos declared. Organizations like Generation Opportunity will continue fighting for such reform, and can ironically count the Obama administration as an ally in this important fight — although perhaps only a fair-weather friend.
Watch the documentary on the next page.
Disclaimer: The author’s wife worked for Generation Opportunity from 2014 to 2015.