I have debated whether to write this column since I stood in Denver’s Civic Park on a brisk winter night listening to my former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announce his candidacy for president of the United States.

As a staffer in the governor’s office for the majority of the governor’s second term, I was and still am a staunch defender of many of the governor’s policies and actions.

But I as I stood listening to the former governor speak, I was no longer a loyal staffer. Rather, I was a 22-year-old African-American voter.

Michael Anthony Crews

Through that lens, I was struck by Hickenlooper’s comments to “renew our commitment to a reformed justice system that addresses our long history of slavery, segregation, and racial bias.” I have been equally struck by his comments on social/criminal justice reform during his trek on the campaign trail.

The governor signed legislation that addressed Colorado’s sentencing guidelines and aligned the state’s resources to focus on justice-involved individuals’ successful re-entry back into society.

He also signed legislation that allowed individuals convicted of a misdemeanor offense for the use or possession of marijuana to petition to seal their criminal records if their offense would not have been a crime if committed on or after Dec. 10, 2012.

All these pieces of legislation truly helped move Colorado forward, and Coloradans should be thankful that the former governor signed those bills.

My concern is that Hickenlooper is running on a record of only signing legislation — which some might say is an important function of the role of governor, and I do not disagree.

However, when I think about what progressive leadership looks like, signing legislation that has broad support in the legislature is just a small part of the equation.

Colorado’s governor has few executive powers when compared to the powers granted to governors across the country. There is one area in particular that the governor does have absolute authority, and that is the ability to grant pardons.

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Section 7 of the state Constitution may only be a sentence in length, but it gives the governor the 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” …etc.

In layman’s terms, the governor has the ability to grant a pardon in accordance with the rules outlined by the legislature.

And for their part, the legislature requires that an applicant receive documentation from the warden of the correctional facility where they were incarcerated and for the governor to seek comments on the application from the district attorney and judge who were involved in the applicant’s case. The governor also has the sole discretion in evaluating these comments.

As I mentioned earlier, the governor signed HB17-1266, which allows for the sealing of misdemeanor marijuana conviction records. Defendants must pay a district court filing fee and an additional court fee and must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the offense would not have been a crime on or after Dec. 10, 2012.

If the court grants the defendant’s request, they then must also pay a fee to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for record sealing.

The legislature’s non-partisan staff estimated there were 9,672 cases with marijuana petty offense or misdemeanor convictions between Jan. 1, 2007, and Dec. 10, 2012.

The bill’s fiscal note also assumes that approximately 5 percent of the 9,672 individuals with these type of cases will try to have their criminal records sealed every year.

These numbers do not take into account convictions prior to 2007, which are also eligible. Finally, it is important to note that fees associated with this process total around $316.

Individuals interested in pursuing this route need to have the wherewithal to navigate the judicial system along with the state’s bureaucracy, which could potentially lead to the retainment of legal counsel at an additional expense.

Now I want to talk about what progressive leadership looks like to me. Former Gov. Hickenlooper could have — if he so desired — channeled state resources to locate those convicted of non-violent low-level marijuana offenses and informed them of their right to seek a pardon from him.

As I outlined earlier there are very few regulations on the governor’s authority to issue a pardon. Moreover, there is no fee to apply for a pardon, and you do not need the assistance of an attorney during the application process.

I am not saying that every single Coloradan convicted of a non-violent low-level marijuana offense is deserving of a pardon, as each individual case is unique.

I am saying that if the former governor truly wanted to stand tall and be a progressive leader, he had the option available to him to utilize his executive authority to do such on an issue that impacts thousands of his fellow Coloradans.  

Why should any Coloradan convicted of a non-violent low-level marijuana offense have to live with the stigma and life-long consequences of having a criminal record for a crime that they can no longer be prosecuted for, especially if they cannot afford have their record sealed by the judicial system?

I simply ask that if former Gov. Hickenlooper is elected president of the United States that he keeps his campaign promise to reform our criminal justice system and decriminalize marijuana while not leaving behind the millions of Americans that were impacted by the war on drugs as he left behind his fellow Coloradans.

Michael Anthony Crews worked for former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper between 2015 and 2018. Crews held a number of positions in the Governor’s Office including with the Office of Legal Counsel. His final position in the Office was as the Director of the Office of Constituent Services.

Michael Crews

Special to The Colorado Sun