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A federal judge who sentenced a man to 55 years in prison over low-level pot deals now says that he regrets the decision, mentioning that it was forced on him by lawmakers.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Cassell“A mandatory minimum is a sentence that says a judge has to impose a particular minimum number of years,” said Paul Cassell, a retired U.S. district judge. “It ties the judge’s hands. . . mandatory minimums can be used to send a message, but at some point the message gets lost.”

Weldon Angelos, an aspiring rap producer, was arrested in 2002 after he told a national news crew that he sold pot to make ends meet. Cops set up three undercover buys. Angelos brought a gun to the deals, so he was ultimately charged with selling weed while in possession of a firearm.

Prosecutors “stacked” charges

That increased the legal penalties, on top of which, prosecutors decided to “stack” the charges, filing a separate count for each of the marijuana deals. That meant Angelos was sentenced on three convictions, adding up to a mandatory minimum of 55 years in federal prison.

What’s worse, Angelos has no chance at parole. He was 24 years old when was sentenced, so he’ll be in his late 70s by the time he’s released. The chances are that he’ll die behind bars.

Angelos lived in Salt Lake City at the time of his arrest. He was trying to make it as a music producer, and he has two young sons. He owned his own record company and worked with major talents, including Snoop Dogg.

“I do think about Angelos,” said Cassell, who served in the U.S. District Court for Utah. “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.”

Mandatory minimum sentences are a product of the drug war and date to the 1980s and 1990s. More than 200,000 Americans are serving long sentences for minor, non-violent offenses, many similar to Angelos’.

Unnecessary escalation of punishments

Marijuana Gavel“The drug war totally drove the mandatory minimums that we’re still dealing with today,” said Julie Stewart, founder of a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We have escalated punishments to the point that it’s crazy. . . . Why does any non-violent offender need to spend more than ten years in prison? Even that is a huge amount of time.”

Cassell’s appearance on ABC’s Nightline was a rarity for a federal judge. But he said that Angelos’ case still haunts him, and that the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

“If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison,” the judge said. “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.”

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About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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