When Weldon Angelos was busted in 2004 for selling about $1,000 worth of marijuana in Utah he faced a sentence harsher than rapists, terrorists, and murderers. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and exacerbated by the fact that Angelos was carrying a gun at the time of his arrest, the hip-hop music producer and father of two was punished with 55 years in prison. Incarcerated at age 24 without the possibility of parole, Angelos would have been 79 before he walked free again.
That is, until last June, when the Utah prosecutor who convicted him downgraded the charges against Angelos, allowing him to get out of prison. Now age 36, Angelos is mainly trying to catch up on lost time with his family; but he has also become the public face of a cause that has attracted the passion and support of politicians, philanthropists, and activists from both the left and the right: sentencing and prison reform. According to numbers prepared by the White House a few years ago, half of the 2.2 million federal prisoners in America are serving time for drug related offences, at an annual cost to the taxpayer of some $80 billion. Many, like Weldon Angelos, were non-violent first-time offenders.
Now a bipartisan coalition is forming to address the issue. What started with typical efforts by Angelos and his attorney to appeal his conviction quickly caught the attention of those further up the political food-chain. Paul Cassell, the federal judge who presided over Angelos’ 2004 case publicly declared at the time that he disagreed with the 55-year sentence, but that his hands were tied by the law. “I thought the sentence was cruel, unjust, and irrational,” Cassell told local Utah news. He also went on national television and voiced regret that he was in his view “forced” by “the system” to do something he knew “wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Utah senator Mike Lee, a leading conservative on the Hill with a well-earned reputation for policy acumen, then took up Angelos’ case, saying he supports sentencing reform “not in spite of my status as a conservative Republican but because of it.” Democratic senators got on board, too, and it wasn’t long before Barack Obama was touting prison reform as low-hanging fruit for a divided Congress. The ACLU campaigned for the issue, and prominent rappers like Jay-Z and Snoop Dog also made rare political appeals, urging their fans to get informed and vote. And, notably, the Koch brothers committed their not inconsiderable resources to sentencing reform, taking a particular interest in Angelos’ case.
It is a good reminder of the vitality of American civil society (in a time when such reminders are desperately needed). That a cause of public concern can attract the attention of both Charles Koch and Snoop Dog, and eventually reach the President’s desk, means that the gears and levers of our intermediary institutions are still churning, however slowly.
Of course, the question is far from settled, and law-makers in various states are taking up bills proposing reduced minimum-sentencing requirements. (North Dakota, for instance, is considering such a bill, especially as the prison population in that state swells to unsustainable levels.) But real reform will have to happen at the federal level, and here, as Politico pointed out earlier this month, the issue that was once seen as “the great bipartisan hope of 2016” turned out ending in “disappointment” after “law and order” Republicans moved to block reform legislation. In response, Obama included more than 500 low-level non-violent drug offenders in his January pardons, sending a clear signal that he thought Congress should try again. Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has promised to reintroduce criminal justice reform legislation in 2017 (after clearing the remaining Trump appointees his committee has to consider). But opposition from other Republicans—like Arkansas’ Tom Cotton and former presidential contender Ted Cruz—seems to remain in place.
As the legislative process plays out on Capitol Hill, however, it will be useful and necessary to have a committed and well-organized faction of nonprofits and activists providing pressure from the outside. This coalition exists already, illustrating some of the ways in which the dynamics of American civil society tend to operate. A hearty dose of common sense mixed with a healthy sense of moral indignation often moves the American heart.
We’ll see soon enough if the 115th Congress reflects these sentiments.