Among Governor Bill Ritter's hits and misses, few actions have drawn as much criticism as his proposal to release thousands of inmates months earlier than originally planned, thereby cutting millions of dollars from the state's overstressed budget.
The announcement sent convulsions of anxiety through Colorado's crime-control industry. Police chiefs braced for waves of thugs hitting the streets. A criminologist predicted a sharp spike in the crime rate, including an upswing in "heinous" crimes. Private prison contractors groused about lost business and possible layoffs. Last month a Denver Post article shrieked that the governor's early-release list included a cop-killer — who was within a few weeks of mandatory release, anyway. And last week, Republican lawmakers demanded that Ritter end the "disastrous" program, even though it had scarcely begun.
Actually, Ritter's plan barely qualifies as "early release" at all. Only a small percentage of state inmates receive discretionary parole anymore. The vast majority serve out their sentences right up to their mandatory release date, then have a mandatory period of parole to complete on top of that. Although the Colorado Department of Corrections routinely deducts "earned time" of a few days each month, violent offenders are required to serve at least 75 percent of their original sentence.
Ritter's plan excludes sex offenders, targets inmates who are already six months or less from getting out, and would still require screening by the Colorado Board of Parole, which can — and often does — deny early release to violent offenders. The plan is a candle lit under a glacier, a slight nudge to a massive, overstuffed prison system that's draining an ever-increasing share of state resources while lawmakers dawdle over sentencing reform proposals.
The alarm and outrage that greeted even this modest cost-cutting measure is a good indication of what the governor is up against as he tries to get a handle on the DOC's $700 million-a-year budget, which has swelled at an average rate of 10 percent a year for the past two decades. No politician can afford to appear soft on crime — not even a former prosecutor who, in his gubernatorial campaign, vowed to control soaring prison costs by launching new programs that would lower recidivism.
Ironically, the governor has a powerful weapon in his arsenal when it comes to getting people out of prison early, one that requires no legislative approval. Properly applied, it can save money, address inequities in the justice system and transform the sentencing reform debate. But it's politically risky, and Ritter has declined to use it to any real effect in his first three years in office.
It's called clemency. The state constitution gives the governor "the power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons" for all crimes except treason. It's a tool that Ritter's predecessors have wielded, sometimes boldly, to free particular prisoners or shorten their sentences, to correct injustices or reward people who have turned their lives around while incarcerated, or to wipe the slate clean years after youthful bad behavior. Clemency used to be a routine part of being Colorado's governor, like cutting ribbons and wearing a cowboy hat, but in recent decades the option has been exercised less and less.
Governor John Love granted more than 200 pardons in his ten years on the job. Richard Lamm granted more than 150 in twelve years — and commuted hundreds of sentences. Roy Romer pardoned just over fifty in his three terms. In eight years, Bill Owens issued only seven pardons and six commutations.
Ritter reorganized Owens's executive clemency advisory board and created a second one, designed to review applications from inmates serving time in adult prisons for crimes committed as juveniles. To date, he's issued two pardons — one for a 1997 drug charge, and one for a 1995 misdemeanor theft — and not a single commutation.
The situation has frustrated prisoner advocates, especially those trying to modify life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. A 2006 law makes lifers who enter the prison system as juveniles eligible for parole after forty years, but it doesn't apply retroactively to those already convicted; their chief hope now is Ritter's juvenile clemency board, which has reportedly reviewed more than a dozen cases so far but has not produced one commutation.
"When we went to the legislature to get the law changed for juveniles in the adult system, they told us, 'There's always clemency,'" recalls Mary Ellen Johnson, director of the Pendulum Foundation, a juvenile-justice nonprofit based in Denver. "They were shocked when we told them that nobody gets clemency."
Certainly none have among the life-without-parole cases that Pendulum has championed, several of which were featured in a 2007 Frontline documentary. Trevor Jones, who was seventeen in 1996 when he fatally shot another teen, was convicted of reckless manslaughter — but still ended up with a mandatory life sentence under the felony-murder law. Despite an exemplary record in prison and his insistence that the gun discharged accidentally, his application for clemency was recently denied.