The Redemption Campaign is a statewide initiative to liberate thousands of people who pose no public safety risk from Colorado prisons by challenging Governor Polis to use existing clemency powers in new and transformational ways. Our mission is to replace the architecture of mass incarceration with a roadmap to freedom and redemption. We need you to join us in this fight. Click here to take action.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
– Bryan Stevenson
Founding organizational partners of the Redemption Campaign include Second Chance Center, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, the Powell Project and the ACLU of Colorado. See full list of partners here.
“I spent the first few years of my incarceration blaming my actions on my drug use. As I have grown, and looked into myself, I have come to take responsibility for the choices I made. Once I accepted the harm my role caused others, I actively sought out ways that I could make amends.” — Ronald Johnson
We must transform the concept of clemency from a case-by-case extension of individual mercy into an essential systemic response to decades of racist, punitive, and unjust incarceration. For most people in prison, a governor’s grant of clemency — acknowledging their right to redemption and the human capacity to fundamentally change — is the only chance they have of timely release and a pathway to healing.
We cannot do this alone. That the power to immediately release thousands of people rests in the hands of a single actor makes it all the more important, because justice cannot wait. Add your voice to the chorus of people demanding justice, and together we will achieve our goal: the liberation, through categorical commutation, of 1,000s of people in Colorado.
Use this social media toolkit to urge Governor Polis to safely release people from prison. The toolkit has graphics, links and sample language on the redemption campaign, the Bronco ads and the urgent need for release.
Learn more about the redemption campaign.
The Urgent Need for Clemency
Colorado now has a higher incarceration rate than any country in the world — more than Canada, France and the United Kingdom combined. The broken and racist criminal laws that fueled mass incarceration were all the product of a governor’s signature. Governors can use that same authority to remedy this crisis. In Colorado, Governor Polis has the power to unilaterally change people’s sentences and send them home.
Governor Polis has openly recognized the heavy responsibility he bears in exercising his clemency powers to help transform individuals lives. In October 2020, he established a diverse and committed Executive Clemency Advisory Board to help him “determine when an individual is ready to move beyond his or her criminal history.” The clemency board has been hard at work, but Governor Polis has not honored that work. In the past two years, including during the COVID-19 crisis, Governor Polis has exercised his clemency powers to release a total of 7 people from prison. Decades of mass incarceration and racist criminal legal policies have ensured that there are thousands of people in prison who could be safely released. Read some of their stories here. Governor Polis must do more.
Redemption Campaign Requests of Governor Polis
- Make decisions on all commutation petitions within three months of approval by the Clemency Board.
- Re-Issue your now expired Executive Order to expedite and expand special needs parole to include anyone in prison who is at higher risk from COVID-19 who is not a public safety risk.
- Direct the Parole Board to facilitate expedited parole application hearings for people who can be safely released and are already past their parole eligibility dates.
- Create a program to facilitate expedited commutation for people who can be safely released, with the stated goal of safely releasing at least 1,000 people a year, on a rolling basis throughout the year.
- Program development should be based on input from expert community members, including impacted people, to identify categories of eligible individuals.
- Potential categories of individuals for expedited consideration:
- People who are at high risk of death or serious illness by COVID-19 and who do not present a risk to public safety;
- People who were sentenced for crimes for which the General Assembly subsequently reduced the sentencing range;
- People convicted of drug distribution or possession offenses;
- People incarcerated for technical probation or parole violations;
- People aged 60 or older;
- People who have served a substantial portion of their sentence and meet one or more of the following conditions:
- Are veterans;
- Are survivors of domestic abuse, in cases where there is a nexus between the abuse and the offense;
- Are serving a sentence for a crime committed at age 25 or younger;
- Are convicted of nonhomicides and are serving sentences of longer than 20 calendar years;
- Are serving life without parole for felony murder or extreme indifference murder;
- Are serving sentences imposed under the habitual sentencing law;
- People who have served a significant portion of their sentence and have a demonstrated record of rehabilitation in prison as well as the skills and support systems to have a successful reentry into society.
Is it Safe to Release Thousands of People from Prison?
Yes. The data shows that we don’t have to choose between public safety and public health. The two go hand-in-hand. But in Colorado, we imprison thousands of people who pose no safety risk, while 35 other states have managed to significantly reduce their prison populations and lower crime. Putting so many people in prison is an ineffective and expensive response to community challenges. Colorado is safer when more Coloradans are free.
Here are some of the many reasons we can safely release people from prison:
- The aging prison population. In Colorado prisons, people over 50 are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of incarcerated people over 50 grew by more than eight times the rate of the general prison population.
- The rapid growth in the number of women incarcerated. A surge in drug felony filings — mostly for simple possession — is driving demand for prison beds and having a disproportionate impact on women. The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition found from 2015 to 2016, the number of individuals sentenced to prison for drug possession increased 24% among women, compared to 17% overall. There are more women incarcerated in Colorado than ever before, despite posing little public safety risk.
- The number of people incarcerated for nonviolent parole violations. In 2019, 23% of people admitted into prisons in Colorado were incarcerated for a technical parole violation. That means 2,205 people were incarcerated because they violated their parole, not by committing a new violent offense, but for simply failing to appear at a parole meeting or failing a drug test.
- The number of people incarcerated for drugs and non-violent offenses. In 2019, almost 8,000 incarcerated people in Colorado were in prison despite their most serious offense being non-violent. Almost 2,000 people are incarcerated for drugs.
- Mass incarceration does not keep us safe. If incarceration worked to stop violence, the United States would have one of the lowest crime rates in the world, given its penchant for punishment. Instead, it is a nation with a homicide by firearm rate of 29.7 per one million people, compared with Canada’s 5.1 per one million, Germany’s 1.9 per one million, and Australia’s 1.4 per one million. And it is a nation in which every year nearly three thousand young men of color are murdered before their twenty‑fifth birthday.
- Prison may even increase crime. Imprisonment does not rehabilitate, but rather, it frequently does the exact opposite because incarcerated people are separated from their families and support networks, placed in a dehumanizing institution that is isolating and hampers prosocial relationships with other people, and upon release, results in stigma and discrimination that prevents access to public benefits, housing and jobs.
- People age out of crime. Research shows that age is one of the main predictors of violence. The risk for violence peaks in adolescence or early adulthood and then declines with age, yet we incarcerate people long after their risk has declined.
The Need to Safely Release People Charged with Violent Offenses
We cannot meaningfully address mass incarceration in Colorado if we categorically ignore or exclude people convicted of violent offenses from consideration. Rapidly increasing sentence lengths for violent crime have played a large role in the explosion of our prison population. In Colorado, the number of people sentenced to die in prison has exploded over the last four decades. Yet, since reaching its peak prison population in 2008, Colorado has only reduced its prison population by 15%. Researchers estimate that if the states maintain this pace of decarceration, it will take seventy two years to cut the U.S. prison population in half. This is largely a result of the decision to exclude violent crime from reform efforts.
Contrary to widely perpetuated myths, people incarcerated for violent offenses and released are the least likely to be arrested again. Research has shown that that violent crime does not occur within a vacuum and that people’s behavior and choices are often shaped by their life experiences with trauma, abuse, neglect, and mental illness, as well as constrained by societal forces including poverty and racism. There are many times when an act of violence is an isolated incident. A person who commits an act of violence is not, per se, a “violent person” who is incapable of existing peacefully and safely in society forevermore. In fact, people convicted of violent offenses are actually among the least likely to be rearrested.
From left to right: James Cranfill is a 62 year old grandfather and Navy veteran incarcerated at the Trinidad Correctional Facility. Kevin Taylor is a grandfather, mechanic and ordained minister incarcerated at the Colorado state Penitentiary, where COVID-19 is flaring up. Marcel is a compassionate, loving father desperate to survive COVID-19 so he can hold his daughter once again.
Read more about the clemency process in Colorado.
There are many ways to reduce the number of people incarcerated in prison and challenge the inequities of mass incarceration. Elected officials can change policies through legislation and ballot initiatives. Police and prosecutors can more humanely wield their discretion to bring fewer people into the criminal legal system. However, these approaches can take many years to bring about change and, even if enacted, do little to help the people currently left behind bars. But in Colorado, Governor Polis can use his executive clemency authority to immediately help incarcerated people. He can grant commutations as an act of compassion or mercy and free people from state prisons.
In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, executive clemency was viewed as a vital part of the criminal legal system. Back then, executive clemency was used far more frequently and was seen as a tool to manage the prison population, correct miscarriages of justice, restore the rights of former offenders, and make far reaching public statements about the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, in more modern times, clemency has been too rarely used.
This must change, especially given the undeniable, disproportionate impact that mass incarceration and Colorado’s sentencing policies have had on people of color, including the Black community. Meaningfully exercising Governor Polis’ power to commute sentences would send an important message to the public on the need to build a better, more just Colorado.
There is long-standing legal and policy precedent that justifies and motivates governors’ using their clemency powers in new, transformational ways to liberate thousands of people. This report from The Urban Institute offers deep insight into the potential power of clemency.
What is Clemency?
In Colorado, Governor Polis has the power of clemency — the power to begin redressing the harm the criminal legal system has caused in a person’s life. The Colorado Constitution, Article IV, §7, provides the Governor with the exclusive power to grant clemency:
The governor shall have power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after conviction, for all offenses except treason, and except in case of impeachment, subject to such regulations as may be prescribed by law relative to the manner of applying for pardons.
Clemency in Colorado has two types: commutation and pardon. A pardon may be granted after a conviction and is a public forgiveness for a crime after completion of the sentence. A commutation modifies a sentence by reducing or ending someone’s incarceration. In each form, the core legal and moral concepts underpinning clemency remain the same: The Governor has the power to correct systemic injustices and end imprisonment that is wrong or no longer necessary.
How Are Other Governors Using Clemency?
COVID-19 actions. During 2020, Government leaders around the country have released people from prison early in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example:
- Governor Jay Inslee of Washington commuted the sentences of over 1000 incarcerated people.
- Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky has commuted the sentences of at least 832 incarcerated people.
- Governor Kate Brown of Oregon commuted the sentences of 253 incarcerated people after declaring a state of emergency amid the pandemic.
- Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland issued an executive order making around 1,200 incarcerated people eligible for early release.
- New Jersey has reduced its prison population by around 35% since the pandemic began.
- At least 1,388 incarcerated people have been granted early release in Arkansas; that state’s prison population has been reduced approximately 10%.
- The Iowa Department of Corrections has given early release to over 800 incarcerated people.
- The prison population has dropped by 19% in North Dakota.
Broader decarceration efforts. In response to the problems of mass incarceration and pervasive structural racism in our criminal legal system, government leaders in the United States have increasingly taken action to reduce prison populations and safely release people. For example:
- In 2019, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted the sentences of 527 incarcerated people in the largest mass commutation in U.S. history.
- In 2019 in Pennsylvania, the lieutenant governor, who is the head of the board of pardons, revitalized commutations after decades of dormancy; 14 incarcerated people serving life imprisonment had their sentences commuted and were released in 2019.
Meanwhile, Governor Polis has released only 4 people.
From left to right: John Peckham is an IT expert and nature enthusiast who requires breathing treatments several times a day, and lives in fear of dying in prison. Ron Johnson is a 62-year-old father and grandfather who has turned his life around in prison after being convicted of non-violent offenses related to substance abuse. Michael Kaiser is a 47-year-old husband, father, and recovering addict who is incarcerated at Sterling Correctional Facility for a non-violent offense, even as COVID-19 tears through the prison.
Read more about why we need Governor Polis to use his clemency powers to safely release people from prison.
COVID-19 revealed that mass incarceration is as much a humanitarian crisis as it is a public health crisis. Overcrowded prisons have epicenters for the virus, with infection rates and death rates soaring both within the prisons and surrounding communities. Prison has been our first and only answer to social problems for far too long. The result — thousands of medically vulnerable, sick or elderly people who pose no threat to public safety, now risk dying of COVID-19 in Colorado’s overcrowded prisons.
In Colorado, more than 50% of people incarcerated in prisons have been infected. There have been more than 7,000 total positive COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people, with almost 700 active cases and 25 confirmed COVID-19 deaths. Over 500 prison staff have become infected, leaving rural, prison communities struggling to meet medical needs. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.
Undo the Harms of Mass Incarceration
In the United States, and here in Colorado, the problems in our prison system are the result of decades of failed and racist policies. In 1985, the era of mass incarceration started in Colorado when the state legislature passed a bill that doubled all felony sentences. The prison population grew at unprecedented rates for the next 25 years and the state prison budget exploded by almost 1288% over the past 35 years. We have incarcerated too many people with sentences that are far too long. In the process, we have needlessly torn families apart and decimated many communities of color. Over 20,000 children in Colorado have a parent in state prison. Far too many people are being harmed by the brutal excesses of the criminal legal system — serving sentences that serve no purpose other than to punish and degrade. Our work to free people from state prisons is as urgent as it is possible.
Champion Racial Justice
Millions of people across the country are calling for an end to the systemic racism that has defined so much of the American experience, particularly in the criminal legal system. Black people comprise just 4.6% of the population in Colorado but 18% of the prison population. The racial disparities in Colorado are even more striking for life sentences. While just 4.6% of Colorado’s population is Black, approximately 32% of people serving a life-without-parole sentence are Black and 33% of people serving life with parole sentences are Black. Releasing people from a broken prison system is a first step we can take to end racial disparities, reunite families, heal communities and save thousands of lives during the pandemic.
Build the Power of Redemption
The mass incarceration system imposes tremendous collateral consequences and social, political, and cultural costs upon incarcerated people individuals who are caught up in its churn of the prison system. These costs include the loss of the right to vote, the loss of public benefits, the loss of access to public housing, barriers to obtaining employment and the unquantifiable psychological and emotional impact on incarcerated individuals, their children, and their family members.
Not only have decades of expanding prison populations cost taxpayers billions, and destroyed families and livelihoods, but it has left little room for rehabilitation, healing, or second chances. Yet, redemption is real and change is possible. Demika Rogers came to prison as a 25-year-old woman who survived a life of abuse and neglect. Over the course of her 15 years incarcerated, she has since dramatically transformed herself into a leader who works to help others. She is a chef, actor, facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Program, founder of the Women of Influence program and active participant in the New Beginnings Church. She has also raised hundreds of dollars for nonprofits. She dreams of returning to her three children and one day starting a nonprofit of her own to help children whose parents are incarcerated. Demika is more than the worst thing she’s ever done. Piecemeal reforms are no longer an option. Governors must take action to make things right.
Save Taxpayer Dollars
There is a growing recognition that we must divest from systems of punishment and invest that money into the communities most harmed by those systems. Mass incarceration is also incredibly expensive. In Colorado, the state prison budget has exploded by almost 1,288% over the past thirty‑five years. As of 2019, the Colorado Department of Corrections budget neared $1 billion dollars to keep people behind bars in 2020, even though data shows that people age out of crime.
We too often fail to appreciate the close relationship between crime and other social issues like health care, education, and economic opportunity. If we properly invested in housing, jobs, and education, provided comprehensive physical and mental healthcare and drug treatment, and created better resources for trauma and violence survivors to keep them safe and help them to heal, crime rates would invariably go down. It is important to remember that every dollar spent on incarcerating a person is a dollar that is not spent on education, mental health treatment, or community support services. By releasing people who are determined not to be a threat to public safety, we can use this money to fund our schools, create jobs and provide affordable housing.
Through release, we save billions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of lives. Polling by Bully Pulpit Interactive found 62 percent of voters recognize that reducing prison populations would strengthen communities by reuniting families and saving taxpayer dollars that can be reinvested into the community. Doing the right thing is good for community and cost effective.
From left to right: Chris Nye is an accomplished artist, dog trainer, community leader and grandmother with severe asthma who is eager to rejoin her family. Demika Rogers is a talented chef, actor and founder of the Women of Influence program, who suffers from severe asthma and deserves a second chance. Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and has spent 30 years incarcerated.
The Redemption Campaign: Embracing Clemency Webinar. Join the ACLU on January 19 to learn about the Redemption Campaign in an educational webinar. Hear from family members with incarcerated loved ones, learn more about mass incarceration in Colorado and find out why the Governor must use his clemency powers to bring our neighbors safely home.
In a series of ads, Justin Simmons, Alexander Johnson and De’Vante Bausby, activists and players for the Denver Broncos, team up with the ACLU to urge Governor Polis to use his clemency powers to safely release people from prison and fight mass incarceration. We are either a nation of “we the people” or “we the prisons” – we can’t be both.
De’Vante Bausby, activist and NFL professional athlete for the Denver Broncos, teams up with ACLU of Colorado urging Governor Polis to use his clemency powers to safely release people from prison. He shares his story and why he believes in rehabilitation, healing and second chances. Redemption is real. Clemency is compassion. We ask Governor Polis to extend a hand.
Watch the story of Ronald Johnson. Ron is 62-year-old father and grandfather who has turned his life around in prison after being convicted of non-violent offenses related to substance abuse.
Watch the story of Anthony Martinez. Anthony is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure, as well as other serious medical conditions including dementia. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID-19 cases. The ACLU of Colorado is happy to share that after having spent over 30 years behind bars for a series of robberies, he will finally be released to live with his family. In the midst of this public health crisis, many more incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.
ACLU hosts COVID-19 decarceration panel to lift up the voices of family members whose loved ones are incarcerated. Panelists included attorneys involved in the lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Corrections and family members whose loved ones are incarcerated during this pandemic. The other 300 attendees heard about conditions in Colorado’s prisons, learned about the urgent need to reduce the number of people in prison and took action to safely release at-risk incarcerated Coloradans.
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