Last Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis used his sweeping, unassailable constitutional clemency powers to cut short the sentences of four felons, and he wiped away the conviction of 20 others. Polis’ perennial pruning of the prison population continues to create controversy. Here, the standard set by Polis will work only to the advantage of felons, and not public safety or justice.

With only limited statutory requirements as to procedure, Polis can commute any number of sentences at any time and for any reason. A pardon power is a historic and useful tool that should exist for reasons related to justice — and justice alone. I believe there are circumstances that call for a full pardon. As district attorney, I advocated for pardons for appropriate applicants, such as Wayne Thomas.

I also opposed the large majority of other applicants, who merely suggested that the passage of time was sufficient for absolution by the system. Still others continue to protest their innocence or diminished involvement based on a rehashing of evidence long ago considered by a jury, or legal arguments rejected by appellate courts.

The clemency process at the gubernatorial level is shrouded in secrecy. A governor is empowered to do as they choose with their clemency powers whenever they wish. And we only get to know what they want to tell us about the process, what they considered and with whom they consulted. Only one year ago — a couple of weeks after Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced — Polis’ staff set up a call with Kim Kardashian, consulted an online petition of millions of non-Coloradans, and then reduced the sentence of the convicted truck-driving mass killer from the 110 years mandated by the law to a paltry 10 years (with parole eligibility at less than five). To this day, Polis refuses to address any public inquiry about the Kim K. call, the petition, or about any other folks who swayed his opinion on that horrific crime.

Because the clemency power is so broad and undefined, a governor can commute sentences and pardon felons for reasons that call into question the integrity of the criminal justice system. A governor can substitute their own judgment for what the appropriate outcome of a case is regardless of what the prosecutor, judge and jury determined at the time of conviction and sentencing. A governor can apply whatever modern ideological analysis to any case, far removed from the laws and values governing the community in which the crime was committed.

It is generational hubris. Those in power believe themselves to be the arbiter of what justice looks like — not just for themselves — but for generations past.

When past Coloradans declared that felony murder would be punished by life in prison with and (later) without the possibility parole, they set the standard by which they would hold themselves accountable. It was a sentence known at the time numerous felony murders were committed. Those murderers went to trial, were found guilty by juries they helped pick, and sentenced by a judge according to constitutionally sound law.

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One such murderer is Robin Farris. In 1990, she senselessly murdered an innocent 29 year old woman. She was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 40 years, which would have happened about six years from now. Farris requested clemency in the middle of the last decade. As the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, I opposed that request based upon Farris’ lack of remorse and input from the family members of her victim. That was in 2016.

Only one thing changed in the years that followed.

In 2021, the heavily progressive General Assembly changed our murder laws to reflect its contemporary view that felony murder only should be punishable at the level as an attempted murder, including permitting someone who received a maximum sentence to be parole-eligible in as little as 24 years.

Based upon this change in the law, Polis cut short Farris’ sentence, stating there was a “disparity in sentencing” between what she earned in 1990 and what the Legislature of today believed was right. Polis has decided to put her on our streets at the end of next month. Meanwhile, the victim she murdered remains deceased.

With the new Polis standard, every person convicted of felony murder can rightfully petition and expect Polis to end their sentences early due to some manufactured “disparity.” Expect many more applications for clemency by murderers and expect many more efforts by the Legislature to revise history by further watering down our murder laws of today, knowing well that it will undo the earned justice of the past.

The law should change to mandate the disclosure to the public of all inputs the governor receives in the clemency process. As well, at the time a governor issues his clemency letter and executive order, they also should be made to disclose the input from the district attorney and any victim to the public. Only then can the public appreciate how clemency powers are being used or abused.

George Brauchler is the former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. He also is president of the Advance Colorado Academy, which identifies, trains and connects conservative leaders in Colorado. He hosts “The George Brauchler Show” on 710KNUS Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeBrauchler.

George Brauchler is the former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. He also is president of the Advance Colorado Academy, which identifies, trains and connects conservative leaders in Colorado. He hosts The George Brauchler Show on 710KNUS Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeBrauchler.

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