Unlikely Senate Allies Lee, Booker Use Film to Document the Need for Criminal Justice Reform

A conservative Republican from Utah and a liberal Democrat from New Jersey are unlikely allies in a bipartisan bid to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.

“In many instances, federal mandatory [minimum] sentencing laws impose unjust and illogical outcomes, leaving the judge with no discretion at all,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told The Daily Signal in an interview.

Lee and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., say they plan to use the true story of Cynthia Shank—a Lansing, Michigan, mother of three young daughters, who was charged in connection with the drug crimes of an ex-boyfriend—to make their case for reforms.

The former boyfriend, Alex Humphry, was slain in a 2002 unsolved killing. Shank was convicted on four drug charges and sentenced in 2008 to 15 years in prison. She served almost nine years before being released in March 2017.

Shank’s story is told through a documentary film, “The Sentence,” which received the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was directed by Shank’s brother, Rudy Valdez.

Lee and Booker screened the film last week on Capitol Hill for the press and invited guests to call attention to the need for criminal justice reform.

“This movie highlights one of those instances where—here, you have a young woman who was the [mother] of three children. She had a boyfriend many years earlier who was himself involved in drugs. She started her life over again. She had married,” Lee said.

“She was raising these beautiful little girls, and all of the sudden, she is charged with and convicted of conspiracy crimes in connection with her previous boyfriend’s involvement with drugs,” the Utah lawmaker said.

Also speaking before the film’s screening, Booker cited disparities in incarceration in his call for criminal justice reform.

“If you look at our prisons, you see who we incarcerate … the mentally ill, the addicted, the poor … and we lock them up at such astonishing rates that we have a country where, if you are an African-American male in this country, you have about a 1-in-3, 1-in-2, chance of being incarcerated at some point in your life,” Booker said.

Valdez said he originally started filming Shank’s daughters’ day-to-day activities, such as dance recitals, and the phone calls she had with them, so that Shank could see her daughters growing up—even if she couldn’t be there to raise them.

He later realized his filming could be used in a broader way to help tell his sister’s story.

Through Valdez’s efforts to get his sister’s sentence shortened, President Barack Obama commuted Shank’s sentence in 2016, and she was released after about nine years behind bars.

“This is a societal problem,” Booker said. “We are getting closer and closer to a point where we have more and more consensus—fiscal conservatives, Christian evangelicals, libertarians, progressives, liberals. We are seeing more of an alignment on this, but we are still too short of change.”

Lee said he hopes legislation that has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, would come to the Senate floor for debate and a vote. The measure would give greater discretion to judges who are sentencing offenders for minor criminal offenses and would aid inmates in their reintegration into society.

We have an opportunity with the House of Representatives having passed something called the First Step Act, which brings about some needed prison reform. We have an opportunity to pick that up now and add some sentencing reform to it.

Some of these same provisions from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act … passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with a bipartisan super-majority voting 16-5 just a few months ago.

We could take some of the provisions of that and add it to the First Step Act as passed by the House, and I think that would be something that could pass both houses and be signed into law by the president.

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