Mandatory sentencing became a reality in the 1980s to address disparities in sentencing for crimes with very similar facts. Congress’ intent was to eliminate this disparity by mandating minimum sentences for certain crimes. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1985 created the United States Sentencing Commission and charged it with enacting Sentencing Guidelines. They went a step further and, in an attempt to end lenient sentencing by sympathetic judges, required minimum sentences for certain crimes:
For example, Congress enacted the Armed Career Criminal Act in 1984 as part of the same law that included the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The Armed Career Criminal Act demands that a district court sentence to a minimum 15-year term of imprisonment anyone who is convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm if he has three prior convictions for “a violent felony or a serious drug offense.” Two years later, concerned by the emergence of a new form of cocaine colloquially known as “crack,” Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposes mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment for violations of the federal controlled substances laws.
Weldon Angelos is sitting in prison, sentenced in 2004 to 55 years without parole for selling about $1,000 worth of weed. He was sentenced to one day for the marijuana. The rest of the sentence was mandatory:
Federal drug laws require 5- to 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for possessing, brandishing or discharging a gun during a drug-trafficking crime. For each subsequent gun conviction, there is a mandatory sentence of 25 years that must be served consecutively. This is often referred to as “gun stacking,” which is why Angelos received 55 years without parole.
He received five years for the gun in the car; 25 years for the second gun charge, having one in an ankle strap; and another 25 years for a third firearms charge, the gun police found in his home.
The judge who sentenced Angelos had no choice. Utah U.S. District Court Judge Paul G. Cassell said it was “the most difficult case he’d faced” and the sentence was “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”
Another irrational case was in Missouri, where Jeff Mizanskey was sentenced to a life sentence for weed, a sentence mandated by the state’s Three Strikes law. Strike one was for selling an ounce of weed to a close relative. Strike two came when police searched his home and found less than three ounces. Two years later, he was merely present while a friend bought weed from a supplier working with the police.
Mizanskey never did anything violent, yet was the only person in the state sentenced to life in jail.
Cruel? Unjust? Irrational?
Many in Missouri thought so, bringing Democrat and Republican state legislators together to lobby for his release, which was announced earlier this month.
Two people in particular agree there’s the need for sentencing reform. Libertarian billionaire Charles Koch and progressive President Barack Obama.
“This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together,” Obama said. “It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP — and the Koch brothers.”
The audience started laughing.
But Koch Industries is urging support of the same legislation in Congress that is backed by Obama as his administration tries to reduce the burgeoning prison population, cut the billions spent on inmates and reverse severe drug-sentencing policies that began with the crack cocaine epidemic.
Obama interrupted the laughter. “No, you’ve got to give them credit,” he said. “You’ve got to call it like you see it.”
Members of Koch Industries have met with members of the Obama administration to discuss sentencing reform. They are the only two parties from opposite ideologies working together to fix this problem:
Senators Patrick Leahy (D–VT) and Rand Paul (R–KY) have introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would apply to all federal mandatory minimums. Senators Dick Durbin (D–IL) and Mike Lee (R–UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would apply to federal mandatory minimums for only drug offenses.
The Smarter Sentencing Act cuts in half many of the non-violent mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, with means fewer people in prison. It also means 8,829 offenders would be up for resentencing.
It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road while people like Jeff Mizanskey and Weldon Angelos sit in jail longer than rapists and murders. Something that upside down brings everyone to the same page.