Senator Cotton's under incarceration problem
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I grew up in the small town of Charleston, Arkansas.  My octogenarian parents still live there today and have always been very active in the Republican Party. That said, they have had second thoughts about voting for Senator Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonGOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' GOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE after his recent remarks about America’s “under-incarceration problem.”

My parents know better than that. They learned all about our criminal justice system the hard way when they lost their only daughter to a 24-year sentence for drug conspiracy charges. 16 years ago, thanks to Senators Bumpers and Pryor of Arkansas, along with approximately 16 sitting politicians, President Clinton commuted my sentence after I’d served over nine years.  

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For nine long years, my parents suffered the horror of what millions of other families are currently enduring - the loss of a loved one to a draconian prison sentence in the United States.  

It didn’t matter that I had never been in trouble with the law. It didn’t matter that I had left my manipulative husband, the one who had become involved with the drug MDMA. It didn’t matter that they had the ring leader in custody, either. In 1989, the Reagan-Bush administration resurrected Nixon’s drug war and launched a “zero tolerance” campaign to punish citizens remotely involved with or related to anyone in the drug business.

This affected wives and girlfriends like me who would not, or could not, provide “cooperating” information to prosecutors about drug dealing. As a result, I was held responsible for every criminal act my then-husband had committed. He, however, did “cooperate” by turning on everyone, including me! He was rewarded with a 3-year probation sentence, while I got a quarter of a century in prison. 

Yes, my parents learned all about who goes to prison and who goes free in this country.  

It is troubling to hear well-intentioned policymakers such as Senator Cotton oppose criminal justice reform based on myths about the system that are just not true. My parents did not deserve to stand in a courtroom and have their hopes and dreams shattered when their daughter was given a 24-year sentence, and neither do all the other families who are currently living this nightmare.

Having been to prison, I know there are thousands of wonderful, patriotic, and good people there.  A drug conviction does not translate into being a bad person. I dare say if the relatives of policymakers were incarcerated, we would see sentencing reform by tomorrow.

Senator Cotton has expressed concern that people with long sentences could be released early, one reason why he says he opposes the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. I hope that I can serve as an example of how misguided he is.

Since my release, I have only sought to better my communities and loved ones. I am proud to be the founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, which advocates for Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders. There are so many people seeking assistance that we are overwhelmed.

The majority of the cases we see are non-violent, first-time offenders serving 20 years to life. Most are people like me, who had no predisposition to break the law but were punished severely for exercising our Sixth Amendment right to a trial. Mandatory minimums are often used like weapons, sometimes forcing people to confess to crimes they have not even committed.

It is critical that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act currently pending in the Senate and the Sentencing Reform Act in the House of Representatives pass and be signed into law so that thousands of incarcerated people will also be able to benefit from having a second chance at life.  It is also critical that Sen. Cotton rethink his position on criminal justice reform and base his views on facts, not myths. 

Amy Ralston Povah, a former federal inmate, runs the CAN-DO Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates justice through clemency and educates the public about the reform of sentencing and conspiracy laws.