Their stories begin differently but end in the same place. Antoinette Frink, who holds a masters degree in school psychology, was the owner of an auto dealership in Ohio; she sold a dozen vehicles to customers who were in the business of distributing cocaine. Luis Rivera, a former pilot and Army officer, began smuggling drugs from Colombia into the United States in his twenties. Barbra Scrivner was a young mother whose husband sold crystal meth.
All three are nonviolent offenders who were sentenced to federal prison in the 1980s, when our national anxieties about violence became public policy with a punitive intent. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 stripped judges of their own discretion and introduced mandatory minimum sentencing for drug criminals. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 ratcheted up the length of those sentences and funded a spree of prison construction to contain an unprecedented rise in the prison population.
Today, our prisons hold more people per capita than any nation in the world and they cost taxpayers a fortune. Mounting evidence demonstrates that mass incarceration has done almost nothing to reduce crime. Yet thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, like Luis Rivera, Barbra Scrivner, and Antoinette Frink, continue to waste their lives behind bars.
Recently, there’s been promise of reform. President Obama made history by discussing criminal justice reform in his State of the Union address this year. The Department of Justice’s Clemency Project 2014 was designed to offer hope to low-level, non-violent offenders and a bi-partisan consensus had emerged to acknowledge the errors – and reverse the overreach – in sentencing policies of decades past.
Yet only one month ago, the Washington Post declared President Obama “one of the most merciless presidents in history.” The Clemency Project had stalled under the weight of over 35,000 applications. With each petition taking a month to review, promises of mercy appeared like false hope.
This week, Obama made criminal justice the focus of his weekly address. Will persistence pay off for the tens of thousands of non-violent inmates serving unnecesarily long sentences in federal prisons?
For Luis Rivera, Antoinette Frink, and Barbra Scrivner, it already has.
Luis Rivera might’ve died in prison were it not for an innovative legal strategy advanced by his lawyer, Sam Sheldon. The Holloway Doctrine states that even after every legal appeal has been exhausted, courts may still reduce any sentence that is disproportionately severe.
The district court agreed. In a rare reversal, Judge Frank Seay, the same judge who’d sentenced Rivera in 1985, granted his immediate release in 2015. “Rehabilitation appears hopeless for a person of your experience and knowledge,” Judge Seay declared while sentencing Rivera, 30 years ago. “My intent is that you spend the rest of your life in federal institutions.” Today, Rivera is rebuilding his life in Florida. He dreams of being a helicopter pilot.
Barbra Scrivner’s third plea for clemency was the charm. Scrivner credits Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) for publicizing the injustice of her sentence and bringing her case to the attention of the federal governement. After spending 20 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, her sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2015.
Antoinette Frink spent over 11 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Her sentence was commuted by President Clinton in 2000. Today she is a practicing tax preparer in Georgia.
Runs 9:22 minutes.
Produced and edited by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Austin Bragg and Krainin.
The interviews were made possible with the assistance of FAMM.
Music: “Eileen” by Lee Rosevere and “Swollen Cloud” by Poddington Bear.
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