POLITICS

Retired Federal Judge Regrets Delivering 55-Year Weed Sentence

02/19/2015 12:48 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2015

Three marijuana sales landed 24-year-old Weldon Angelos in prison for 55 years -- and the federal judge who sentenced him is now speaking out against the penalty.

"I do think about Angelos,” Paul Cassell, who is now retired from the Utah circuit, told ABC News. “I sometimes drive near the prison where he’s held, and I think, ‘Gosh he shouldn’t be there.' Certainly not as long as I had to send him there. ... That wasn’t the right thing to do. The system forced me to do it.”

Angelos, a first-time offender, is one of approximately 210,000 federal prisoners in the United States. That number, an increase from 24,000 prisoners in the 1980s, is often attributed to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws created during America’s war on drugs.

These laws left Cassell with no discretion at sentencing in 2003.

“If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison. If he’d been a terrorist, he would have gotten 20 years in prison. If he was a child rapist, he would have gotten 11 years in prison. And now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that’s just not right,” he told ABC News.

Angelos, an aspiring music producer, was living in Salt Lake City when he was arrested in 2002. The father of two young boys was working to found his own record company while selling weed on the side.

After learning of Angelos’ drug sales, federal authorities used an informant in a series of three sting operations to purchase around $1,000 worth of marijuana from him. The informant also claimed Angelos was carrying a gun during the deals, requiring the mandatory federal minimum sentence to be implemented.

"A mandatory minimum is a sentence that says a judge has to impose a particular minimum number of years,” Cassell told ABC News. “It ties the judge’s hands. … Mandatory minimums can be used to send a message, but at some point the message gets lost.”

Prosecutors stacked the charges against Angelos, meaning each instance of selling narcotics while in possession of a firearm was treated as an individual offense. Angelos is serving an individual bid for each count -- a total of 55 years with no chance of parole. The only relief for Angelos is a presidential pardon.

Generation Opportunity, a Koch brothers-backed group that aims to reform the criminal justice system, highlighted Angelos' situation in a documentary released this month

Julie Stewart, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which worked with Generation Opportunity on the documentary, said Angelos’ case is an extreme example of a common trend in the criminal justice system.

“Is the defendant twice as bad? Or have we just gone crazy with sentencing? I would say the latter,” Stewart told The Daily Beast. “We all know 55 years is too much.”

Angelos' imprisonment will cost taxpayers almost $1.6 million, based on data from the Bureau of Prisons -- something Cassell said signifies how wide the scope of injustice is in this case.

“I thought the sentence was utterly unjust to Weldon Angelos, but also unjust to the taxpayer,” Cassell said. “I think it’s just a waste of resources to lock him up for 55 years, I don’t really think anyone believe that’s an appropriate sentence."

Angelos is serving his sentence in California -- thousands of miles away from his family -- since Utah doesn’t have any federal prisons.

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