Sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling dime-bags of marijuana — a sentence his judge called “unjust and cruel” — Utahn Weldon Angelos became the poster child for a federal criminal system begging for reform.
Now, after years of tireless work, there is a narrow window of opportunity for Congress to put a renewed focus on justice, to restore some compassion to sentencing, to address racial disparities in the system and ensure inmates have a better shot at rehabilitation.
The efforts got a major boost this week when President Donald Trump endorsed bipartisan reform legislation, The First Step Act, hammered out by Democratic Senate leaders, Republicans like Utah Sen. Mike Lee, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and a host of advocates and interest groups.
“Today, I’m thrilled to announce my support for this bipartisan bill that will make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time. So important,” Trump said Wednesday. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.”
For Trump, who ran as a tough-on-crime, law-and-order, stop-the-carnage-in-our-streets candidate, this was a major breakthrough. But it also is a common-sense measure that has some of the broadest and most diverse support you’ll ever see — from the Fraternal Order of Police to the American Civil Liberties Union, and the billionaire Koch brothers to Kim Kardashian.
“His endorsement of bipartisan criminal justice reform is a huge win for the American people," Lee said in a statement. "This legislation strengthens public safety by increasing faith in the criminal justice system, reducing recidivism and protecting vulnerable families."
Now the ball is in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s court. He has said he could let the bill get a vote if it has support from 60 senators — a challenging task, but it is imperative that this legislation make it to the president’s desk this year.
The House passed a version back in May and it’s expected it would sign off on a revised bill rolled out this week. But if the Senate doesn’t get it passed before it adjourns next month, it will practically be back to square one with a new Congress, said Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney for Utah who helped with some of the original drafting and consulted with the Senate and the White House.
“This really is our one shot,” Tolman said in a phone interview from Washington. “Senator McConnell really has to step up and do what the president is asking of him.”
Tolman said he got involved because of cases like Angelos’. In one, he said that he had to “put a kid away for 30 years essentially for having a bad weekend.” The accused didn’t hurt anyone, he said, but the federally prescribed minimum sentences tied his hands and the judge’s hands.
“I wanted to be tough on crime, but I started to see there were malfunctions in the law,” he said.
Lee has been a workhorse on the legislation, Tolman said, refining proposals, recruiting his Senate colleagues and coordinating language with the White House. “Truly, he has been a machine on this thing,” he said.
The proposed legislation would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, give judges more discretion and would retroactively reduce the sentences for those convicted of selling crack cocaine who got a tougher sentence than those selling powder cocaine. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports the compromise version, some 3,000 people would be eligible for a sentence reduction.
Inmates could get more time knocked off their sentences for good behavior, federal prisons would be required to offer programs aimed at reducing recidivism, and prohibit the shackling of pregnant women.
And it would clarify the three-strikes provision that slammed Angelos with a 55-year sentence (he served 14 years before being abruptly released in 2016 without explanation).
Brennan Center attorney Ames Grawert said the bill “will change laws that create some of the most egregious racial disparities in the federal prison system.”
It’s astonishing, in this political climate, to have Trump and congressional Democrats, cops and civil libertarians, uniting behind the cause. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to let slip away. It’s time for Mitch McConnell to let the Senate do its job and right wrongs in our justice system that have been allowed to fester for far too long.