Locked Up for Life on a Nonviolent Drug Bust

Former federal judge who imposed Weldon Angelos's 55-year prison sentence says the case still haunts him.
7:10 | 08/13/15

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Transcript for Locked Up for Life on a Nonviolent Drug Bust
We've all heard the expression, don't do the crime if you can't do the time. The man you're about to meet is serving 55 years for selling weed while carrying a gun. He'd be doing less time if he were a murderer or a terrorist. He's in this position because of a law that credit ins say is wasting lives and your tax dollars. Here's my "Nightline" coanchor Byron Pitt. Reporter: Treasured old photos spread across a kitchen table. A family taking me on a trip down memory lane. That's like one of those "Leave it to beaver" shots. Reporter: Here in the Angelo house, pain and anger amidst laughter. What are some of those things? That you wish you could have done with your father? Played basketball together. Could have been here for my 16th birthday. Reporter: 17-year-old Jesse and 18-year-old Anthony have be haven't seen their father in seven years. Their dad is in federal prison two states away. Bitter because of that? Sad, angry? Some of all the above? Mostly sad. And then anger after. Sad because there's nothing I could do about it. Angry that they shouldn't have done that to him. It's okay. Reporter: Today marks a bitter anniversary. 11 years to the day since their father, Weldon Angelos, was sent to prison for 55 years. His crime, carrying a gun and selling 24 ounces of pot. What do you think of the law that sent your brother away for 55 years? I don't think it makes any sense. It's like pennies' worth of marijuana. How could somebody be doing life for that? Reporter: Since congress created mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related cripes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has quadrupled in size. From 58,000 prisoners to over 210,000. Many, like Weldon Angelos, serving decades or more for nonviolent offenses. Salt Lake City, 2002. Weldon Angelos was a 22-year-old aspiring music producer and father of two young boys. He founded his own recording company, eventually collaborating with big names like snoop dog. Angelos also got involved with selling pot. The police caught wind. They set up three stings, buying about $1,000 worth of marijuana from Angelos. During the deals police say Angelos had a gun in his possession. The critical detail that made this case so extreme. The case went to federal court. Angelos was convicted. Mindless is a good word. Reporter: Under the law, judge Paul Cassell was forced to do something that burdens him still. Do you think about him? I do think about Angelos. I drive on the interstate by the prisoner what he's held. I think, that wasn't the right thing to do and the system forced me to do it. Reporter: Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws Angelos was facing 55 years for the gun and marijuana charges combined. He was a first-time offender. Mandatory minimum is a sentence that says the judge has to impose a particular minimum number of years. It ties the judge's hands. It was designed during the Reagan administration's war on drugs to send a message, right, to drug dealers this won't be tolerated. So mandatory minimums can be used to send a message. But at some point the message gets lost. Reporter: Paul Cassell has since retired from the bench to teach law but says the Angelos case weighs on him. The reason he agreed to speak about his ruling, something federal judges almost never do if he had been an aircraft hijacker he would have gotten 24 years in prison. 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. I'm supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? That's just not right. What does the Angelos case and others say about minimum sentencing laws in the Kun re? We need to change them. Most of the time our criminal justice system works well but there are cases it fails and the Angelos case is a prime example. Reporter: Appointed to the bench by George W. Bush Cassell believes Angelos isn't the only one paying a high and unreasonable cost for these laws. I thought the sentence wasn't just unjust to Angelos but unjust to the taxpayers. Reporter: It costs $29,000 to keep one person in federal prison per year. Angelos' bill after 55 years will be $1.5 million. The price his family will pay -- untold. Just ask his sister Lisa. It's hard. I just keep telling him, we're going to keep fighting, we won't stop at anything. Reporter: She's made good on that, running petitions, filing appeals, testifying before congress. But Lisa knows only an order from president Obama can help set her brother free. Right now our only hope that we have is a commutation from president Obama. Reporter: In the Angelos family there's hope. In waiting around for the phone to ring the weekly call from prison. This call is from Weldon an gel lows, inmate at a federal prison. How are you doing today? I'm doing okay. Reporter: Weldon Angelos is 35 years old. I never thought in my lifetime this could actually happen. Especially in America. Reporter: Phone calls like these, his only link to his boys, now nearly men themselves. Everyone we've talked to has said they feel like your sentence is outrageous. The judge called it a crime that you're there. How does that make you feel? Do you get frustrated, angry? It's difficult to understand. I mean -- I feel my sentence was definitely unnecessary. And a 55-year sentence is not going to do anything more than a five or ten-year sentence would have done. What parts of this experience have been hardest for you? Basically missing out on my sons' lives. I was super close to my sons. Not being able to be with them as they grow just kind of hits me the hardest. Reporter: Beneath the teenage swagger we discover two sensitive sons. Wounded souls. Just watch as they watch this old family home movie. Give me a kiss right here. Kiss right here. Aww! Reporter: The sound of their father's voice, both reassuring and heartwrenching. I notice both you guys perked up when you heard your dad's voice. What are you thinking? Just being around them, you can feel their heartache. Even through their laughter. It's really been hard for them. When he teared up, you teared up. Yeah. It was really hard to see that. I know how bad he hurts. And seeing what they have gone through by losing their father -- it's just emotionally destroyed me. Reporter: There are literally thousands of families in America like the Angelos tonight. Mindful a price should be paid for breaking the law, but asking, pleading, how high should that price be? For "Nightline," I'm Byron Pitts in Salt Lake City, Utah. After that story, what's your view on mandatory minimums? Go to our Facebook page and join the conversation.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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