HBO’s ‘The Sentence’ — A Gripping, Powerful Documentary

HBO Documentary, The Sentence ‘The Sentence,’ a new documentary by Rudy Valdez airing today on HBO, is one of the most powerful pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in years. The documentary focuses on Cindy Shank, a woman who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Though the cocaine belonged to her boyfriend at the time, she broke the law by not reporting it. Her boyfriend was later murdered.


When Shank rejected a plea agreement, her case was dropped, leaving her to think the past was behind her. She fell in love, got married, and had three children. But six years later, she was put in prison on federal drug charges, and her three young children were raised by her husband and her devoted, heartbroken family. Determined to parent from afar, Cindy gives viewers a gut-wrenching glimpse into the kind of mother she could have been to these three little girls.


This documentary is apolitical. Though it shines a spotlight on the ramification of mandatory minimum sentences, it’s up to the viewer to form an opinion. Mandatory sentencing is the result of our legislative branch, and it dictates the decisions of our judicial branch. By eliminating judicial discretion with a defined sentence for certain offenses, judges are not permitted to weigh the circumstances surrounding the defendant to determine an appropriate punishment. No one understands this more than Cindy Shank, who lost nine years of her life and precious years of her daughters’ development. Had a judge been able to weigh the hardship of her absence and the details of her actual crime, things might have been different.  Shank appealed her sentence three times, to no avail. She ultimately applied for clemency as a last resort. You’ll have to watch the film to see the result, but I can say that watching such raw, powerful moments on screen is truly unforgettable.


Cindy Shank’s brother began this documentary with home videos meant to capture the critical points in his nieces’ lives so that his sister could revisit what she’d missed. In doing so, he transitioned into making a documentary, despite his limited film experience. He did his homework, and it paid off. Valdez takes the audience inside his sister’s world, as if you are part of his pained family, experiencing the moments along with them.


Until the age of about 28, I saw the world in black and white. Rules make me feel safe, and it’s nice to identify a clear line between right and wrong. But the world is not black and white. And thanks to Rudy Valdez, perhaps our lawmakers will begin to see the grey.

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