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Mandatory Minimum Sentences Scrutinized

Mandatory Minimum Sentences Scrutinized

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John Daley ReportingMandatory minimum sentences that require judges to hand out a prison term set by Congress are under the microscope. A federal judge here in Utah is openly questioning those sentences and is weighing whether to declare them unconstitutional, at least in his courtroom.

Mandatory minimum sentences became the rule here at federal courthouses in the 80s when politicians were looking to pass legislation that was "tough on crime." Now some, including a judge presiding here in Utah's federal court, are asking if those sentences are "irrational."

For years public opinion and the political establishment have supported "tough on crime" policies, and Congress passed mandatory minimum sentences designed to throw the book at convicted criminals--particularly in drug and gun cases.

But there's a growing debate about the justice of those sentences. The new poster child for that debate -- the case of Weldon Angelos. According to court testimony, Angelos twice carried a pistol in an ankle holster when he sold marijuana to a confidential police informant. Prosecutors say because of his convictions for drug trafficking and weapons possession, he should spend 63 years in jail.

The case has become a cause celebre for those urging sentencing reform; they and Angelos’ family held a news conference after a hearing yesterday. His attorney calls minimum mandatory sentences horrendous.

Jerry Mooney, Attorney for Weldon Angelos: "An individual selling small quantities of marijuana in possession of a firearm and then that person is going to receive a sentence that is two, three, four times as much as a serial rapist or murderer."

Reformers have found open ear from this law-and-order type conservative -- presiding judge Paul Cassell--who yesterday openly questioned federal sentencing rules.

Judge Paul Cassell even took the extraordinary step of handing out information to everyone in the packed courtroom, asking if the sentence of Weldon Angelos is irrational and comparing what Angelos’ sentence could be to other criminal offenders.

By Cassell's analysis, Angelos’ federal sentence would far exceed a hijacker--a terrorist who explodes a bomb in a public place, a second degree murderer, and a child rapist.

The question now: is Judge Cassell getting ready to declare mandatory minimums unconstitutional? Legal experts say that would be a big deal.

Erik Luna, University of Utah Law Professor: "It would, I think, reinvigorate the debate about mandatory minimums and the disparities between punishment and the alleged crimes."

The US Attorney's office declined to comment today, but in court yesterday a federal prosecutor said such strict punishments are meant to act as a deterrent to crimes involving guns and drugs.

Judge Cassell is set to rule on this case in a couple of months.

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