The House Judiciary Committee heard some powerful testimony Tuesday against mandatory minimum sentencing -- and not only from Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Sentencing Project. Offering a sharp critique was Paul Cassell, the noted Utah federal district judge who chairs the criminal law committee of the Judicial Conference, which has long opposed mandatory minimums.
In his prepared testimony, Cassell spoke of the "bizarre" 55-year sentence he felt compelled to give Weldon Angelos, a first-time offender convicted of selling marijuana in 2004. Angelos was founder of Extravagant Records, a rap and hip-hop label that produced records for Snoop Dogg among others. Angelos' marijuana offenses alone would have netted him six to eight years in prison, but because he carried a gun during the deals, Cassell said that mandatory minimums for gun possession left him no other choice but to bump the sentence up to 55 years.
Cassell noted that on the same day he sentenced Angelos, he sentenced a murderer to 22 years. "It is irrational that Mr. Angelos will be spending 30 years longer in prison for carrying a gun to several marijuana deals than will a defendant who murdered an elderly woman by hitting her over the head with a log," said Cassell. He suggests legislation to allow judges to deviate from mandatory minimums to the extent allowed by federal sentencing guidelines -- which in Angelos' case would have meant a sentence 40 years shorter than what he got.
Cassell's critique of "one-size-fits-all" justice did not go unanswered. Richard Roper, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, offered a full-throated defense, asserting that mandatory minimums, first enacted in the 1980s, have contributed to the nation's "dramatically reduced crime levels." Not only are dangerous offenders taken off the streets for long stretches, says Roper, but he says the prospect of hard time deters criminal behavior. The laws are also "an indispensable tool for prosecutors," serving as a bargaining chip to get cooperation from defendants in solving other crimes. He also said existing law includes "safety valve" provisions that allow lower sentences for first offenders who are not violent and do not use firearms.