Weldon Angelos finally released from prison; why did Obama leave him there so long?

Weldon Angelos was the poster prisoner for opponents of mandatory minimum sentencing and those who want the minimums reduced. And for good reason. Angelos was unjustly sentenced under the mandatory minimums to 55 years in prison after being convicted for selling marijuana.

Are there other instances of unjust sentences under the minimums? Almost certainly. Yet, advocates of sentencing leniency seem hard-pressed to find them. Of the cases cited in the debates I’ve watched and the hearings I’ve attended, only the Angelos sentence strikes me as manifestly unfair. It appears to be in a class of its own.

Fortunately, the system provides a way for dealing with unjust sentences. The president can commute the sentence. Yet President Obama, despite having commuted many sentences, did not commute that of Angelos.

This week comes happy word that Weldon Angelos is a free man. On Tuesday, he was released from prison. He returned home to his family in the Salt Lake Valley.

How did Angelos obtain his release? According to this report from Fox 13 in Salt Lake City, the court granted a reduction in sentence, “but it’s not clear why because part of the federal case is now sealed.”

Obama did not commute Angelos’ sentence. Fox 13 reports:

Petitions were launched asking President Obama to grant clemency to Angelos. [The sentencing judge] himself sent a letter to the president urging Angelos’ release. . . .

President Obama did not commute Angelos’ sentence, and the reason for the release remains unknown.

I think we can make an educated guess as to the reason why Angelos spent nearly the entire Obama administration behind bars. Obama probably wanted Angelos to remain in jail so supporters of more lenient sentencing could continue to use him as their poster prisoner. Commutation would have rendered him useless for that purpose — worse than useless, actually, because it would have highlighted the fact that the system provides a cure for injustices brought about by the mandatory minimums.

Meanwhile, in the same week Angelos was released, Obama commuted 42 more sentences, bringing his total to 348. The commutation are proudly announced in this White House press release.

All but two of the 42 cases involved manufacturing, selling, and/or possessing with intent to distribute significant quantities of drugs much more dangerous than marijuana (most often cocaine). More than half a dozen also involved firearms.

Obama has proudly commuted the sentences of hundreds of cocaine and other hard drug dealers, some of whom carried firearms to the drug deal. But he left Weldon Angelos to wile away the Obama years in jail.

The latest White House press release says the commutations “underscore [the president’s commitment] to reforming our criminal justice system.” So too, I fear, did the decision not to grant clemency to Weldon Angelos.