If there’s one characteristic that sets America apart from the rest of the world, it’s that we love a good show of force. We love playing tough, even when the result of our irrational tactics exposes us as a nation of wimps.
Look at our “war on terror.” As Thomas Friedman states ad nauseum in his syndicated columns, our national reliance on foreign oil drives despotic, oil-rich Middle East regimes. In his criminally overlooked Web columns for Newsweek, Christopher Dickey pointed out that the United States’ International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards division gets a mere $100 million annually to find rogue groups attempting to build nuclear weapons. If valuable Arabic translators in the U.S. military turn out to be gay, they’re canned. When it comes to finding weapons of mass destruction, we can’t even invade the right country.
Our nation’s anemic, and long running, “war on drugs” rarely gets coverage equal to the meat-grinder of today’s Iraq anymore. Few were surprised when Denver’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Weldon Angelos’ 55-year prison sentence more than two weeks ago. So few were surprised, because we’ve ceased watching the assembly-line work of our sometimes-bizarre justice system. And, rest assured, our justice system is at its most bizarre when it comes to illegal drugs.
For those of you who missed this the first time around, Angelos was convicted in 2003 in federal court of selling small amounts of ganja to an undercover officer on three occasions. On two of those occasions, Angelos, a young man with no prior convictions, had a gun strapped to his ankle. A hip-hop record producer as well as the father of two children, Angelos no doubt courted the gangsta image. Puritanical fire-breathers would later state that Angelos got what he had coming: a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison for possession of firearms in connection with drug-trafficking crimes.
But if Angelos got what was coming to him, it’s certainly out of proportion to what other people receive for far more egregious crimes. This paper’s pointed it out before in a December 2004 Lake Effect penned by staff writer Shane Johnson. William Gene Gould, 40, received a five-year sentence for beating his fishing partner to death and then threatening a witness. Izailton M. Desousa, 42, will serve between seven and 30 years for molesting seven boys in his neighborhood. Utah news overflows with accounts of white-collar criminals who bilk fellow church members for millions. The majority land cushy terms in federal prison, if any jail time at all, for outright theft. During a recent sentencing hearing for Richard Barlow, who pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion and two counts of mail fraud that allegedly drained nearly $21 million from 650 people, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell gave this quote to the Deseret Morning News: “White-collar crime can be just as devastating to its victims as assault or even murder.” Ordered to pay restitution, Barlow was sentenced to less than four years in prison.
It would be nice if our justice system were calibrated along that same sentiment. As it stands now in our country, drug offenses draw outrageously draconian sentences compared to the relative slaps on the wrist that child molesters, rapists, thieves and killers receive. Even U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who found his hands tied when delivering Angelos’ sentence, was aghast. A stalwart conservative and Federalist Society member, Cassell called it “unjust, cruel and irrationalâ€'in other words, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
Not so, according to the 10th Circuit Court, which reminded Angelos’ indefatigable legal team that Congress inaugurated mandatory minimum sentences with the sole purpose of “severely” punishing criminals, such as Angelos, who sell pot with guns stuffed down their socks. An appeal of Angelos’ prison sentence, which leaves him 81 years old the day he finally walks out of prison “downplayed the seriousness” of his “crimes.
Critics of mandatory minimum sentences level all sorts of criticisms against them. Chief among them is that these sentences tie the hands of judges and juries, effectively throwing a wrench into the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, i.e., a defendant’s right to be tried by a jury. In a pair of 5-4 rulings early last year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in part, telling federal judges they’re now free to make broader sentencing decisions, even if they should still act with Congress’ brute sentencing guidelines in mind. In the end, it matters little that these nebulous rulings came too late for Angelos. They still leave most legal commentators scratching their heads, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to fully address the issue of federal mandatory minimums.
The insanity of all this is deep. A recent report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy found that we’ve long been in the process of paroling child molesters, rapists and murderers so that more prison cells might be occupied by those guilty of selling drugs. Even a new push to enforce a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years in federal prison for those convicted of molesting a child can’t rectify the sheer insanity of Angelos’ current situation.
Perhaps a rational person would feel different if Angelos was guilty of peddling a more nefarious substance. Anyone ever heard of methamphetamine? At a cost of $22,000 per year (not accounting for inflation) Angelos’ prison tab will cost us all $1.21 million. That’s a lot of money to throw at one pot dealer. No one said playing tough was cheap. What Angelos’ obscene prison sentence really says, however, is that we as a society would rather see a young woman brutally raped than catch her toking from a bong.