When we punish the family – a review of The Sentence


for matt blog

The scene may be familiar: a family movie showing three young children, beginning a road trip to visit their mom who lives far away. The camera zooms in on one of the little girls and her uncle asks, “what do you tell people when they ask why Mommy is in Florida?” She responds, “I tell them that it’s something only the family needs to know about, and they seem okay with that.”

But this isn’t a typical home movie, this is Rudy Valdez’s Sundance Award-winning HBO documentary The Sentence, and the little girl’s mother Cindy Shank isn’t in Florida for any typical reason. Instead, she is there because, six years after her ex-boyfriend was murdered, federal agents arrested her and charged her with the gun and drug crimes for which he should have answered. Cindy was charged under a set of conspiracy laws colloquially referred to as “The Girlfriend Problem.” This scene was shot five years into her fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison.

The Sentence encapsulates the damage wrought upon families by excessive and disproportionate prison sentences. Several critics have suggested the film should do more to unpack the injustice of Cindy’s conviction and sentence, including how her mandatory minimum sentence was imposed right before the expiration of the statute of limitations for crimes she was barely involved in. But I disagree. Arguing simply that Cindy shouldn’t have been in prison perpetrates a manufactured divide between those “damaged” by our gluttony for incarceration and those who “deserve it.” Instead, the power of the film comes from the presentation of the impact of incarceration on children, spouses, families, and communities, and the pain these sentences cause, regardless of the legitimacy of the underlying conviction.

The truth of the matter is, the pain inflicted on families, children, and communities doesn’t change if the individual in question “deserved” their sentence. This movie shows three young Latinx women, growing up without a mother, with a negative view of the justice system, and experiencing isolation from their peers.

I had the privilege of seeing this movie at a screening hosted by FAMM and Georgetown Law School, with Mr. Valdez in attendance. After the screening he told the audience about how one of the young girls was, at the eleventh hour, uninvited from her best friend’s birthday party when the friend found out her mother was currently incarcerated.

Therein lies the problem: A young girl, who only gets to see her mother a couple of times a year, then experienced this emotional pain compounded by being ostracized from her friends. As a society we must consider the impact of how we treat those convicted of crimes, not just on their own chances of reoffending, but on the generational impact of these convictions and resulting sentences. We know from research that family ties are vitally important to reducing recidivism in both juveniles and adults. How do we keep families connected while a family member is involved with the justice system? Those in the federal prison system can be placed in a facility anywhere in the US, regardless of where they live. Even when individuals are held in a state prison system, the facilities are often in remote areas with few or no public transportation options. As a result, a trip to visit an incarcerated family member is often lengthy and expensive. This distance, along with high costs of phone calls from prisons, serves to restrict, not enhance, family engagement.

Research tells us that the attitudes of victims of crime are shifting. A 2016 survey of victims of crimes found that, overwhelmingly, crime victims support perpetrators being held accountable for their actions, but that accountability does not need to include prison. Many who advocate for harsh sentences trumpet the importance of honoring the victim and protecting their families. Upon examination, however, the underlying premise of this argument is flawed.

I am not suggesting that people shouldn’t be held accountable, but that accountability needs to come with rehabilitation and a focus on the protective factors for recidivism, such as family. Locking someone up, thousands of miles away from their family for long periods of time is not proportional, rehabilitative, or an effective means to prevent recidivism.

So, what should we do instead? At the Justice Programs Office, we have long been involved in the development and support of problem-solving courts for adults, juveniles, and veterans. These courts seek to keep people out of prison, address the underlying causes of their criminality, while still maintaining accountability. The work our office does helps people with substance use disorders remain connected to their families and communities, promoting pro-social bonds and encouraging access to treatment. Not everyone is going to be eligible for a diversion program such as these, but with both adults and young people, we see reductions in recidivism rates for participants in these programs. This is just one example of ways we can reduce crime, while avoiding excessive prison sentences.

Which begs the question: Do we want to reduce crime, or do we want to lock more people up for longer periods? Research, such as studies assessing the effectiveness of accountability courts, tells us these two outcomes are in fact diametrically opposed. The Sentence shows us the impact on­­­ families wrought by America’s obsession with incarceration. If we are serious about reducing crime and improving the lives of our children, we should seriously think about the impact our overly punitive carceral state has on the next generation. Only when we start to accept how little lengthy sentences accomplish will we be able to start to heal the wounds of our misguided approach to crime and punishment.

Matt Collinson is a senior research specialist working on the OJJDP-funded Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts Training and Technical Assistance Initiative at the Justice Programs Office (JPO).