Historically it was the prerogative of a king (or in our case, a governor or president) to show clemency toward prisoners around the winter holiday season. Clemency comes in two forms: 1) a pardon—a public forgiveness for a crime or 2) commutation—a reduction of sentence.
Following that tradition, at each year’s end, Gov. Jared Polis has granted clemency to a small number of Coloradans. This year, he followed his traditional pattern by issuing four sentence commutations and 20 pardons.
But there is one way in which this year’s grants were dramatically different: for the first time since taking office, Polis commuted the sentence of a woman.
In 1991, Robin Farris, who killed her romantic partner during an argument, was sentenced to life in prison for felony murder — a legal doctrine that holds a person liable for murder if they participated in a felony (in Ms. Farris’s case, burglary) that resulted in someone’s death, whether or not they intended for that death to occur.
The governor shortened Ms. Farris’s life sentence, making her eligible for parole on Jan. 31 of this year. In his commutation letter, he acknowledged her positive growth and change in prison. He also noted that Ms. Farris would face less time in prison if charged and convicted today because the Colorado General Assembly recently reduced penalties for felony murder, but did not make this change retroactive.
Ms. Farris’s commutation is also unique because, according to attorneys at the Spero Justice Center, she is the first Black woman to receive a sentence commutation from a Colorado governor in more than three decades, even though Black women are incarcerated at more than triple the rate of white women.
Women are often especially deserving of clemency consideration. Overwhelmingly, women who receive long prison sentences were victims before they became perpetrators. One study of 150 women in New York prisons found that 94 percent had experienced physical or sexual violence at some point before their imprisonment.
Yet Ms. Farris is one of just a handful of women who have received the precious gift of a second chance from a Colorado governor. Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper granted a commutation to only one woman, as did his predecessor, Gov. Bill Ritter. To our knowledge, Gov. Bill Owens did not grant sentence commutations to any women. Gov. Roy Romer granted clemency to a total of five women, including several whose cases were presented by law students in a special clinical program.
Along with two other faculty members at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, we created and ran the Battered Women’s Clemency Reform Project in the late 1990s. The project’s goal was to present compelling clemency candidates to Romer, who was term-limited and leaving office in 1999.
We submitted eight clemency petitions to the governor, expounding on the stories of those whose lives and desperate choices were dramatically shaped by trauma, pointing out the unfairness of harsh sentences and the uselessness of continued incarceration. On his last day in office, Romer granted commutations to four candidates our clinic had identified—three women who had suffered horrific abuse at the hands of their partners, and one man who killed his father after witnessing the father severely abuse his mother and siblings. Another woman was convicted of killing her husband—a sadistic man who played Russian roulette with her and beat her so severely during her pregnancies that she miscarried multiple times. Romer gave them a second chance.
Sadly, after this project ended, clemency grants to women plummeted again until Polis’ recent decision to commute Ms. Farris’s sentence. Perhaps this is a sign that the drought of women’s clemency grants is finally coming to an end.
While in office, Polis will undoubtedly have the opportunity to consider other compelling clemency petitions from women. We hope that Ms. Farris’s commutation is not an isolated incident, and that Polis will soon continue to use his clemency power to extend mercy to other women deserving of a second chance.
Nancy Ehrenreich, of Boulder County, was co-director of the Battered Women’s Clemency Project at Denver University during a portion of former Gov. Roy Romer’s term in office.
Jacqueline St. Joan, of Denver, was co-director of the Battered Women’s Clemency Project at Denver University during a portion of former Gov. Roy Romer’s term in office.