The change in policy was made by
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. who made the announcement before the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco. Holder told the members that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no history of gangs or drug operations will no longer be charged with offenses that require severe mandatory sentences.
“We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken,” Holder said. “And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget.”
In Utah many are praising the change. Attorneys for Weldon Angelos who got 55 years in a federal prison for a drug deal are among those who have been clamoring for change.
“Everyone considered it a very harsh sentence,” says Troy Booher an attorney who helped with Angelos’ appeal. “He's going to be 78-years old before he gets out.”
Dana Byrd was facing ten years mandatory prison for a drug deal.
His attorney got him a plea bargain instead but Byrd's still in prison.
“So you're looking at a sentence of 10 years in a federal court versus realistically maybe six months or less in a state court,” says Clayton Simms.
He says the plea bargain gave Byrd an opportunity to get out of prison sooner.
“It would have been a decade of his life had he gone to trial and was found guilty,” says Simms.
Congress passed laws requiring federal judges to impose mandatory minimum prison sentences for felony drug dealing.
“A mandatory minimum sentences is really a harsh remedy and should be reserved for cases that are most appropriate,” says Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor.
Cassel was the federal judge who sent Angelos to prison for 55-years.
He regretted the forced sentencing calling it "cruel, unusual and irrational” at time of sentencing.
Cassell refused to talk about the Angelos sentencing but says it's hard on judges.
“It’s difficult for a judge to impose a mandatory minimum sentence when you know it's not the right sentence for a particular crime,” he says.
The change in direction by federal prosecutors is too late for those already convicted. But Angelos' attorney says it's the right thing to do.
“(To have) non-violent drug offenders to be housed in our federal prisons (and) for us paying for it for a number of years, (it) just doesn't make a lot of sense,” says Booher. “And we have enough of a track record to know that it hasn't materialized.”
As for Angelos, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. He has no filed a second petition for clemency. Booher says the first attempt for clemency was denied by President Obama.