Picture this: It’s 5:45 on a Wednesday night. Catering and bar service are in place. Students, professionals, and community members are cautiously entering the building to make sure they are in the right spot. All is relatively quiet in an otherwise bustling law school. SCREEEEEEECH—a god-awful feedback rings from microphones during sound check. It’s rare to be able to say that feedback is the biggest hurdle encountered for such an event, especially on a rare day in Phoenix when it’s raining. But other than the 20-second long piercing sound of microphone feedback, the event was a success.
Recently, at Arizona State University, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Right on Crime partnered with HBO, FAMM, and ASU law student organizations to host a unique event—a film screening of HBO’s documentary “The Sentence.” The screening was followed by a panel discussion on mandatory minimum sentencing in the United States. With approximately 120 folks in attendance from both sides of the political aisle, we played the documentary in the law school’s amphitheater. Laughs were shared, Kleenex was passed around, and the audience sat in quiet captivation of the emotional portrait of Cynthia Shank’s, and her family’s, life after she was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for her minor and indirect involvement in a former boyfriend’s drug selling activities.
A collective sigh was let out in the after the credits rolled, a fitting segue to a heavy discussion on sentencing reform. The panel featured Molly Gill with FAMM, Frantz Beasley with AZ Common Ground, Pat Nolan with the American Conservative Union, and Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer. Frantz and Pat, as former inmates recalling the time they spent away from their families while incarcerated, had powerful reactions to the film. Molly, as a former prosecutor who now works with families of inmates to achieve sentencing reform elaborated on the tension undercutting this issue: that punishment should fit the crime and mandatory sentencing circumvents what should be a cornerstone of American corrections. Kent, as a current Arizona county attorney who enforces the law, did not defend the 15-year sentence handed down to Cynthia and instead discussed how discretion should have been used by prosecutors in their charging decisions in this particular case.
For more information about “The Sentence” please click here.
For more information about current trends in Arizona criminal justice, please see the recent report published by FWD.us, here.