The documentary “The Sentence,” which showed at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, doesn’t try to inundate viewers with a glut of statistics on the screen. While it does examine the devastation that mandatory minimum prison sentences have on lives and advocates for more flexibility in the American justice system, it’s really about one family and the lengths they’ll go to be together.
“My sister was sentenced to 15 years for a first-time, non-violent offense, six years after the offense happened,” says filmaker Rudy Valdez in a short preview of his film.
Valdez says “The Sentence” didn’t start out as a documentary. He says his first response to his sister Cindy’s arrest was to make home movies that focused on his three young nieces. His sister’s youngest daughter was just 6 weeks old when Cindy went away.
“Pictures are wonderful and phone calls are wonderful,” Valdez says. “But I wanted her to be able to watch them live a little bit and watch their moments and watch their gestures and watch their faces.”
That’s the bulk of what viewers experience in this film. Those raw emotions and phone calls from prison. A husband struggling to do the best he can to raise three girls without his wife.
While filming, Valdez researched the criminal justice system and worked to fight his sister’s excessive sentence.
“He came to visit me at one time and we both had this conversation,” says Valdez’ sister Cindy Shank. “We kind of looked at each other and we had both come to the realization probably like six or seven months later, there were so many women in there like me. And we were both just like, they’re not going to let me out.”
In 2014, the Obama administration started an initiative called The Clemency Project. Federal prison inmates were encouraged to petition for their freedom — if they met certain criteria. Law firm Ballard Spahr, which has an office in Salt Lake City, took on many of those cases and won presidential clemency for 29 clients before the project ended at the end of Obama’s term.
Shank was one of those success stories. But she loses more than her freedom in the process.