A group of Broncos players that included Justin Simmons, Alexander Johnson, De'Vante Bausby and Diontae Spencer met virtually with Governor Jared Polis on December 21 to urge him to use his clemency powers to decarcerate state prisons — not only as a way to push back against mass incarceration, but also to mitigate the threat of COVID.
"The governor has the power to use his clemency powers to help some of our prisoners that are at risk and meet the criteria of minor charges, not being a threat to society, having a stable home to return to, and, for those that can work, having a job set up. It just seems like a no-brainer," says Simmons, the Pro Bowl safety for the Broncos (and possibly the best player on the team not named Von Miller).
The players walked away from the meeting with the impression that Polis would use his clemency power broadly in the coming week.
Then, on December 23, the governor announced that he was offering clemency to 22 individuals, through eighteen pardons and four sentence commutations. (The lineup included Richard and Mayumi Heene, parents of the Balloon Boy.) Those who had their sentences commuted are set to be released from prison in mid-January.
While Simmons and his teammates recognize the importance of those four individuals getting a new lease on life outside of prison, they felt let down that Polis only commuted the sentences of four people.
"It just was very disheartening and very disappointing," Simmons says. "We’ve all, whether personally or someone in our families, been affected by being granted a second chance, and we really see how that opportunity can change a family and the lifestyle of that family. ... We’re talking about people’s lives, families' lives, and there are stories around each person."
"Governor Polis evaluates each clemency application individually," explains Victoria Graham, a spokesperson for Polis. "Each commutation application presents a difficult decision that the Governor considers very seriously, and he weighs individual circumstances and public safety."
The four players plan to continue pushing for decarceration. "There’s no burning bridges," Simmons says, adding that he and his teammates are eager to meet again with the governor.
Their advocacy work in recent weeks is part of a months-long trend of Broncos players becoming increasingly active in pushing for change in Colorado.
"The George Floyd protests seemed to really influence players on the team to become involved in advocacy in the state. Like Alexander Johnson getting involved in advocating for SB-217, the law enforcement reform bill," Simmons says of teammate Johnson, who is having an excellent season at linebacker.
The Broncos players came out for a protest in downtown Denver on June 6. Two days later, Johnson was tweeting, "Thank y'all so much for supporting SB-217 today, I look forward to your continued support on final senate vote tomorrow. Thank y’all for expecting the best out of our officials," and tagging multiple state senators in the tweet.
An overwhelming, bipartisan effort in the Colorado Legislature led to the passage of SB-217, a sweeping law-enforcement accountability and reform bill that was a direct response to the George Floyd protests and other demonstrations around the country calling for racial justice.
"What the Broncos are doing, and what they have done with SB-217 and around Elijah McClain’s murder and now these decarceration efforts, is nothing but helpful and will hopefully move our state in a better direction," says State Representative Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who spearheaded SB-217.
"We met with them in October, and we kind of went through our issues of social justice, racial justice issues — and the one that really resonated with them was mass incarceration," says Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado. "I’ve really enjoyed seeing these guys as activists, and not just as athletes or Denver Broncos. It’s been a really good collaboration and conversations that we’ve had with them."
Maes and the ACLU of Colorado have been pushing Polis throughout the pandemic to lower prison populations, since incarcerated individuals are largely unable to socially-distance and face a greater risk of contracting COVID.
"What we’re trying to put a fine point on now is that mass incarceration is a racial justice issue. There are far more people of color incarcerated than there are represented in the community. If you layer the COVID pandemic on top of it, where communities of colors are also suffering disproportionately from COVID, you have a double or triple whammy on communities of color," Maes says. "The correctional system is where we have the highest outbreaks, and they are really largely being ignored by this governor. I don’t understand why he refuses to acknowledge that obvious fact."
Both Herod and Maes note that one of the benefits of working with Broncos players is that they attract a new audience — a fact that isn't lost on Simmons.
"We’ve seen just in the sports world...a combination of a lot of people empathizing and seeing where a lot of the minority players, and players in general, are speaking out for the things that they know to be truths in their lives. A lot of people are starting to empathize with that," Simmons says.
"Their voice brought in folks who were maybe unsure about public policy or maybe unsure that they could make a change. It’s made politics something that is more accessible," says Herod, adding that this is the first time she's seen Broncos players advocating so passionately on political issues.
"I certainly hope that we continue to see them raise their voice and ask for change. Everyone can be a part of the political process," Herod says.
"This is kind of treading new ground for us, getting on the political side of things. But we didn’t get into it because of that. It’s not a left-versus-right conversation," Simmons explains. "We just know our experiences, know our truths. This is why we feel like it’s important to speak out and speak up on these topics."
This story has been updated to include a response from Governor Jared Polis's office.
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