SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee was still a federal prosecutor when he first heard about Weldon Angelos.
Angelos, a 23-year-old music producer and father of three young children, was arrested in Utah in 2002 for selling dime bags of marijuana to a confidential police informant while carrying a gun. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Judge Paul G. Cassell wrote a blistering opinion disagreeing with the harsh sentence he was forced to impose: “The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel and even irrational,” it said. “It is also far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape.”
But Angelos’ conviction came with a “mandatory minimum” sentence, part of a system of non-negotiable rules dictating specific prison terms for specific crimes. The judge said his hands were tied — he had no choice but to impose what amounted to a lifetime behind bars.
But then the judge said something else: “Only Congress can fix this problem.”
Lee, R-Utah, said those words would “haunt” him. He had seen severe sentences handed down before, but when a colleague told him about the Angelos case, the punishment struck him as “plainly excessive,” and caused a significant shift in Lee’s attitude toward mandatory minimum sentences.
When Lee was elected to the Senate in 2010, the words of the judge still rang clear in his mind, he told the Deseret News. He began to look for allies to help reform the criminal justice system.
“When the public sees judges handing out unfair punishments, it undermines trust in the entire public system,” Lee wrote in a Fox News op-ed. “Incarceration is an essential law enforcement tool that protects communities and keeps families safe. But it also inflicts costs on communities and families, and at some point the negative impact of incarceration on marriage and family can become too stark to ignore.”
Eight years later, in 2018, Congress passed the bipartisan First Step Act, the first major criminal justice overhaul in decades, co-authored and co-sponsored by Lee. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 21, 2018.
Lee recounted Angelos’ story “hundreds of times” to generate support for the cause on both sides of the aisle, he said.
And it was with Angelos in mind that he wrote the portion of the act that modified mandatory minimum sentences. The act also broadened job training and expanded early-release programs for federal prisoners.
Lee and Angelos didn’t meet in person until 2016, when Angelos was unexpectedly released from prison after 13 years. Angelos used his newfound freedom to become a political activist, helping to circulate a letter signed by more than 50 celebrities, including Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and Alyssa Milano, urging Congress to pass the legislation.
Lee and Angelos stayed in touch after their initial meeting, and Lee said he’s grateful for Angelos’ active support of the legislation.
“I’m thrilled, I’m ecstatic that it passed,” said Lee. “There were countless occasions when we had to make adjustments and compromise. Nevertheless, what we ended up with is really good.”
‘Tough on crime’ vs. ‘smart on crime’
Lee said that at first it was the Democrats who were “more sympathetic” to his efforts because many Republicans had relied on “tough on crime” platforms to get elected.
“We had to help people understand that ... you can’t be tough on crime without being smart in the way you fight it," said Lee.
Lee said a big part of being “smart on crime” is reducing recidivism — the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend. The U.S. has seen a huge growth in the size of the federal prison population to the point of overcrowding, in part because of mandatory minimum federal sentencing in cases like Angelos'. Ultimately, the vast majority of these offenders will be released, so the focus should be on making sure they don’t reoffend once they get out, Lee said.
That’s where the act’s provision for job training and other programs to help reduce recidivism comes in. The new act, Lee said, will help make sure prisoners stay out of jail once they are released. Giving them skills and tools to reintegrate and become productive members of society will result in a safer America, he added.
The act also relaxes mandatory minimum sentence requirements by allowing judges to hand down less prison time in certain circumstances and by easing the life-in-prison penalty of the “three strikes” law, which requires that felons found guilty of three serious crimes be locked up for 25 years to life.
It also expands “good time credits” that well-behaved inmates can put toward a shorter prison term and creates “earned time credits” which encourage inmates to take part in rehabilitation programs that can lead to an earlier release.
Lee’s argument that such reforms were “smart on crime” without being “soft on crime” was key to convincing some hesitant Republicans, including Trump, to back the act.
Lee said conservatives like himself want to protect against government overreach, and “nowhere is the risk of government overreach greater than when you are talking about locking people up for years.”
Lee also said the president was influenced by his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “dogged” support of the act. Kushner's own father was sentenced to two years in prison for illegal campaign contributions and was released in 2006.
“As I sat in the Oval Office across from the president, I said, ‘You promised to make the American people safe, and this act is part of that promise,'” said Lee. “That seemed to resonate with him.”
Rare bipartisan cooperation
The passage of the First Step Act was the result of an unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, the Koch brothers and the Center for American Progress — who pushed lawmakers to reevaluate the way the federal government administers justice.
In the Senate, every Democrat and all but 12 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation.
“This act in its entirety has been endorsed by the political spectrum of America,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who led the push for changes along with Lee and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, to The New York Times. “I can’t remember any act that has this kind of support, left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican.”
Trump quickly lauded the Senate vote, saying on Twitter that the changes would “keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it.”
Lee said that the First Step Act is a powerful example that bipartisanship is alive and well in Washington.
“You have people coming together around a common principle,” said Lee. “There are some principles in which the parties are ideologically at odds with one another. This is one case in which the parties don’t have a philosophy that is diametrically opposed to the other party.”
Lee said the act’s overwhelmingly bipartisan support was made possible by the “emotionally charged” nature of the topic.
“There’s something wrong with a criminal justice system that can bring about such unduly harsh consequences,” said Lee. "But it took some time and education for that message to catch on."
Lee also said the support of two very different presidents — Obama and Trump — was fundamental to the act’s success.
Obama’s focus on criminal justice reform was “revolutionary,” Lee said, adding that before Obama took office, it was difficult to get the country’s leaders excited about the topic. But Obama’s determination to effect change galvanized the commitment of congressional representatives and their constituents to do something about the injustices of the system.
When Trump first came into office, it wasn't clear where he would stand on the issue.
"But the president came through," Lee said. “Trump’s strong, vocal and courageous leadership and support on this issue really made the difference."
The act is not without its critics, who point out that the legislation falls short of standards set by a more comprehensive reform proposed in Congress during Obama’s presidency.
Even the act’s strongest supporters acknowledge it will have a relatively small impact on the size of the federal prison system, and none at all on state and county facilities.
“The First Step Act is pretty limited and applies just to people in federal prison. It won’t change anything for the much larger state prison and county jail populations,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank based in Massachusetts.
Eighty-seven percent of prison inmates are held in state facilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That doesn’t account for local jails, where hundreds of thousands of people are held on a typical day.
To put that in perspective, if Trump pardoned every single person in federal prison right now, it would push down America’s overall incarcerated population only from about 2.1 million to about 1.9 million.
Lee said that while it's true that the First Step Act only impacts the federal prison system, that's because the federal government has no legal power to alter incarceration policy at the state level.
However, Lee said he does hope that changing federal policy will inspire similar reform at the state level. As its name suggests, the act is a critical “first step” toward reducing prison overcrowding and keeping America safer, he said.
“It’s the biggest criminal justice effort that we’ve seen in decades,” said Lee. “I’m honored to have been a part of it.”