Bill Ritter plays it safe on pardons

In their last days in office, some governors have been known to make bold moves in the criminal justice arena, denouncing ruinous policies and commuting long sentences as a way of highlighting unfair biases in the system.

As demonstrated by the modest set of pardons he doled out last week, Bill Ritter is not one of those governors.

Much ado was made of Ritter's decision to pardon anti-gang crusader Reverend Leon Kelly for a 1979 robbery conviction -- undeniably a popular move, and also the right one. The other nineteen recipients of pardons have also shown the ability to turn their lives around after transgressions ranging from marijuana possession to domestic violence.

But these were also eminently safe choices. All of the convictions involved are at least a decade old; one of the pot cases dates back to 1971. It's pretty easy to demonstrate rehabilitation when you've been a productive member of society for many years.

As I discussed in last year's feature "The Quality of Mercy," clemency is one of the most powerful and underutilized weapons a governor has for addressing inequities in the justice system. Properly applied, it can save a state millions of dollars by releasing unjustly convicted or demonstrably rehabilitated prisoners whom the parole board chooses to ignore. What's intriguing about Ritter's approach to clemency are the types of cases he refuses to deal with, even now that his term in office is almost up and there's little political downside to taking action.

True, Ritter is a former prosecutor, and you wouldn't expect him to get all bleeding-heart about some lowlife who's doing thirty years for property crimes. But his background is precisely what raised hopes among sentencing reform activists; just as it took a confirmed cold warrior like Richard Nixon to advance detente with the Soviet Union and China, it would take someone like Ritter to restore sanity to the Colorado justice system.

Ritter came into office promising big changes in sentencing and corrections policy, most of which have never come to fruition. And, until last week, the number of pardons he'd issued could be counted on one hand, with lots of fingers left over. He hasn't exactly been a big advocate for juveniles doing long sentences in the adult system, like Jacob Ind (life without parole for killing his sexually abusive parents when he was fifteen; clemency application denied) or Tara Perry (a former sixteen-year-old runaway serving forty years for accompanying her abusive and ultimately suicidal boyfriend on a crime spree during which she injured no one, clemency denied).

Nor has he done anything in cases of clear sentencing overkill, such as Donnie Andrews (81 years for a series of drug-related minor-felony thefts and robberies). And he surely won't touch a controversial figure such as Krystal Voss, a young mother doing twenty years for child abuse resulting in death, a crime she may not have committed.

To varying degrees, all of the inmates mentioned above have made remarkable strides in trying to make amends for their transgressions while in a system that offers little hope or incentive for improvement. And there are dozens more like them. In the era of Dick Lamm or even Roy Romer, some might merit a commutation of sentence. Ritter hasn't issued a single one of those.

That's not to slight the Christmas gifts Ritter handed out to twenty once-wayward citizens last week. No one says those gifts aren't meaningful or valued by the recipients. But they were the easy choices.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast