WASHINGTON — Cindy Shank was raising her three young daughters with her husband, Adam, when her life was turned upside down in 2007: She was prosecuted on conspiracy charges tied to her long-past relationship with a her late boyfriend, a drug dealer.
Because of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, she was given 15 years in federal prison.
Her story is the basis for the documentary “The Sentence,” set to air on HBO on Oct. 15, which screened on Capitol Hill this week. Far more than just another issue-oriented project, it’s the type of project that some lawmakers hope will create momentum for sentencing reform.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) hopes it will be a “transformative event for so many people across the country,” as it personalizes an issue in a way that speeches and think-tank panels cannot.
He and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who are championing pending legislation, co-hosted the screening at the Kennedy Caucus Room, and they were joined by Rudy Valdez, Shank’s brother and the filmmaker behind the project.
Valdez chronicled his sister’s story over the course of much of her incarceration, and makes the point that the issue is not with her guilt, but with the fairness of her sentence. Her incarceration ended in December, 2016, when she was granted clemency by President Barack Obama. Shank, too, was at the screening, albeit she arrived a tad late because of a flight delay.
“This is a film that will shock a lot of Americans because they will not believe this kind of injustice goes on in the United States of America,” Booker said.
Lee noted that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act passed 16-5 in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, one of the rare pieces of significant legislation that has bipartisan support. The bill would reduce sentences and give judges more discretion in certain non-violent and lower-level drug crimes.
“If you learn about this issue, it becomes a no brainer, if you learn about the stories of some of the things that people face,” he told Variety. “Cindy, for example, the mother of three young children, sentenced to a 15-year minimum mandatory sentence. The judge had no discretion whatsoever for a crime that occurred many years earlier where her boyfriend was involved in drug distribution.”
He said that he became interested in the issue 15 years ago, when he was serving as a federal prosecutor in Salt Lake City. One of his colleagues was handling the case of a man in his mid-20s who had two young children, but who was caught selling three dime-sized quantities of marijuana over a period of 72 hours and was carrying a gun. Those circumstances earned him a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence.
“The judge took the unusual step of issuing a written published opinion disagreeing with the sentence he was about to impose,” Lee said. “As he said, ‘There are hijackers who don’t do this much time. There are terrorists who don’t get this much time. There are rapists. There are even murderers.’
“Then he said something that has been haunting me ever since. He said, ‘Only Congress can fix this problem.'”
Booker said that criminal justice reform has become a “life mission for me,” and is one of the reasons he ran for the Senate.
“I have just seen how this drug war has destroyed lives, destroyed families, destroyed neighborhoods, in ways that don’t make economic sense, don’t make moral sense, and don’t help us deal with the underlying challenges of poverty and mental illness, drug addiction or public safety,” he said.
Prison reform legislation is pending in the House, and Lee and Booker raised the prospect that it could be combined with the Senate bill. With the midterms approaching, though, all major legislation can be a dicey prospect.
“It may not be quickly. It may not be all right away, but I think that this is an issue that it is a matter of not if but of when,” Booker said.
Booker called White House efforts to deal with the problem of mass incarnation “anemic,” and said that they needed to take bolder steps.
“I wish that they would not kowtow to the attorney general, who is one of the main roadblocks to a larger, more robust sentencing reform,” he said.
Lee said that a number of White House officials support sentencing reform efforts. “Not everyone in the administration sees it quite the same way, but I am confident at the end of the day Congress is going to do the right thing and the president is going to sign it into law,” he said.
At the screening, he said that he sometimes hears comments about being a Republican and favoring sentencing reform, the idea being “You are not supposed to like this.”
“Well as a Republican, I like to believe that we are concerned about liberty,” Lee said. “Liberty is nowhere threatened more than it is when someone is locked up, than when the government takes someone and puts them behind bars for years, sometimes decades.”