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October 11, 2018
Set your DVR for HBO's showing of documentary "The Sentence"
The folks at FAMM have been hosting advanced screenings of a new documentary about the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing, and in a few days HBO will make it possible for everyone to see "The Sentence." Here is how HBO describes the film:
First-time filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s The Sentence tells the story of his sister Cindy Shank, a mother of three who received a 15-year mandatory sentence for conspiracy charges related to her deceased ex-boyfriend’s crimes. The documentary offers a searing look at the consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing and received critical acclaim when it premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
The Sentence draws on hundreds of hours of footage shot by Valdez, who initially copes with his sister’s incarceration by filming the family moments Shank misses in prison. In the midst of Shank’s sentence, Valdez discovers his voice as a filmmaker and activist.
During the last months of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative, the family starts to fight for Shank’s release. The aching question at the core of this deeply personal portrait is whether their attempts to free Shank will succeed.
This lengthy Newsweek piece provides more details and context about the movie and the issues it raises. Here is an excerpt:
The Sentence, which won the Audience Award at Sundance and airs October 15 on HBO, tells Shank’s story. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez, her younger brother — at the time a pre-K assistant teacher — began making home videos of his nieces on a spare camera, as a way to record Shank’s children growing up. Before long, he began to see it as an opportunity to tell the story of mandatory minimum sentencing through “the people left behind,” says Valdez. His sister was eager to cooperate: “Tell everyone,” she told him. “Please, somebody see us.”...
Through Shank, Valdez exposes a broken justice system, one that began with the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent cocaine and marijuana crimes were introduced as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — an attempt by Democrats to respond to the crack cocaine epidemic following the highly politicized, fatal overdose of college basketball player Len Bias. Mandatory sentences are lengthy for drug offenses; in 2016, the average carried 7.8 years — more than double the average sentence for a drug offense without a minimum. As a result, defendants are encouraged to consider accepting a plea bargain — the option Shank rejected — to receive a lesser sentence than the minimum.
In theory, plea bargains — ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1970 — offer leniency to criminals who accept responsibility for their actions, allowing the accused and the state to avoid a time-consuming and expensive trial. In reality, defendants, even if they proclaim their innocence, are often pressured to plead guilty; go to trial, they are told, and you will likely get a much longer sentence. Such bargains have now become the norm: A 2017 New York Times investigation found that 98 percent of felony convictions occurred after a plea deal. And according to annual reports published by the Administrative Office on the U.S. Courts, total jury trials for U.S. criminal cases had dropped by roughly half between 1997, when there were 3,932 cases, and 2017, when there were 1,742.
The system “allows prosecutors to hold all of the cards,” says litigator Marjorie Peerce, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Sentencing Committee. "Even if the government doesn’t have sufficient evidence, people will still plead guilty, for fear that they’ll be convicted and then sentenced with a mandatory minimum. People should not be penalized for exercising their constitutional right to trial.”
And of those penalized, the majority are black or Latino. A 2014 study found that black offenders were 75 percent more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender who committed the same crime. In 2016, Latinos represented the largest racial group in federal prison convicted of an offense that came with such a sentence. (Shank is Latina.)
October 11, 2018 at 11:39 AM | Permalink