Jul 20 2018
It is one thing to understand a public policy issue abstractly. It is quite another to see up close how those same policies affect the lives of real Americans.
That is why it is so important for everyone to see the upcoming documentary, “The Sentence,” a movie about the human costs of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which I had the honor of co-hosting this week with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
The movie tells the story of Cindy Shank, a mother of three who was convicted on four drug charges in 2008.
Her troubles began in the late 1990s, when Cindy’s then-boyfriend began dealing drugs. In 2002, this same man was murdered outside the home they were sharing in East Lansing, Michigan. As police investigated the murder, they discovered that Cindy’s boyfriend ran a large drug conspiracy and that while living with Cindy assisted her boyfriend by counting money and receiving drug shipments at their home. After her boyfriend’s death, Cindy managed to turn her life around. She got married and started a family. She began raising three wonderful daughters.
Five years later, police came knocking on her door. Prosecutors sought to punish Cindy to the maximum extent allowable by federal law, asking the judge for 89 years in jail. The judge thought the prosecutor’s request was unfair and unjust, and wanted to give Cindy as little jail as possible. Unfortunately, due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed by Congress, 15 years was the shortest sentence the judge could give. His hands were tied.
Cindy’s youngest daughter was less than six-months old at the time. Her middle daughter was two. Her eldest was four. Their mother had done nothing wrong during their entire lifetimes and was remarkably reformed, but now they were all about to be punished for the rest of their lives.
“The Sentence” chronicles that punishment. It puts very real human faces on the damage done to families and communities by excessively punitive mandatory minimum sentences.
Our country needs strong drug laws. We need to punish offenders that prey on our community. But we also need smart drug laws that distinguish between major and minor offenders. We need fair drug laws that the public believes in and supports. Because without that support, without that belief in the system’s legitimacy, unfair mandatory minimum sentencing laws do more harm than good.
Fortunately this is a problem Congress can fix. Excessively punitive mandatory minimum sentencing laws were created by Congress and they can be undone by Congress. The Senate already has several pieces of legislation begin to address this the problem. Earlier this year, the Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly reported the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor, where it awaits a vote. Alternatively – and perhaps more realistically – we can add sentencing provisions to the First Step Act. Doing so would offer a serious opportunity to enact a criminal justice reform bill and enable us to get a bill to the President Trump’s desk this year.
But we need your help. Please share this trailer to The Sentence. Please go see this movie when it is released in October. And please tell your friends and family to do the same.