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Why one of Trump’s pardons sent a needed message on criminal justice reform

Kristin Murphy

The case of Weldon Angelos always seemed to make people uncomfortable.

He was, by any definition, a criminal. He sold marijuana to undercover agents and had drug paraphernalia, evidence of money laundering and firearms in his home when Salt Lake Police officers conducted a search warrant. Most importantly, he was carrying a gun during drug transactions, at least according to an informant, even though he didn’t unholster it or wave it about.

He deserved to go to prison. It was hard to argue against his harsh sentence without appearing soft on crime.

Nearly a decade ago, I would get calls from people whenever I wrote about Angelos and his harsh sentence. Stop coddling criminals, they demanded. The fact that he got a harsher sentence than many murderers, rapists and terrorists didn’t seem to matter to them.

Because he reportedly had a gun with him, Angelos got 55 years. He would have been 78 when that was through, ready for little else than a short stint as a free, old man. But the law allowed nothing less.

Even his judge, Paul Cassell, called his own sentence “unjust, cruel and even irrational.” But he had no choice.

In the end, Angelos’ early release and subsequent life ought to emphasize what the nation’s criminal justice system really should be about — rehabilitation.

Angelos was among the handful of people President Donald Trump pardoned on Tuesday. But Angelos was already free, released from prison more than four years ago after an unusual coalition of conservative politicians, including former Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter and former Sen. Jake Garn, and liberal activists from Bonnie Raitt to Daniel Ellsberg persuaded a federal court to reduce his sentence.

Trump’s pardon takes things a step further, as if the sting operation, the arrest, conviction and sentencing never happened. Except, of course, that they did, and that other people still languish in prison because of laws that leave the connection between crimes and their sentences topsy-turvy.

If you go to the website for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, you can find a video of Angelos and his son touring Washington, D.C. “I’ve always wanted to come here,” he says. “This is the place where the laws were created that got me a 55-year sentence, and this is the place where we can change it.”

As for experiencing freedom after 13 years in a federal prison, he says, “I hug my family every chance I get now.”

Americans should take a hard look at that video and ask themselves what good it would have done to leave Angelos in prison, or what good it is doing others who still are there with little hope of early release despite how they might have changed.

Are we well-served by a sentencing structure that treats certain types of offenders as if they are irretrievably depraved? Certainly, some crimes call for heavy, even life-long sentences, but does drug dealing while having a gun nearby count as one?

And what good does it do to appoint judges and then apply only cookie-cutter sentences to those who are convicted? Shouldn’t a judge be able to judge?

The irony is that minimum mandatory sentencing laws take power away from a judge and put it into the hands of prosecutors. They are the ones who decide which charges to bring and whether to try cases in federal court.

Already, Angelos’ case has been a catalyst for the First Step Act, which became law two years ago. It shortened some sentences and gave judges a bit more leeway in certain cases. It has made a small dent in the large numbers of inmates in the federal prison system. But a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice argues much more needs to be done.

While mandatory sentencing has existed in various forms since the 1950s, they caught hold during the 1980s, when tough law-and-order seemed to be the ticket to elected office. That was the same time when three-strikes laws, a weird form of sentencing based on the rules of baseball, put some people behind bars for life on a third conviction.

While some of Trump’s other pardons were questionable, his pardon of Angelos ought to signal that it’s time to move away from that sort of punitive thinking and focus more on ways to help people change.

It’s time for the nation to more seriously confront cases like those of Angelos, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.