By Alan Bean
Barack Obama, a moderate Democrat, should heed the example of conservative Republican Hailey Barbour. In this Washington Post op-ed, Barbour explains why he pardoned 215 people during his last days as Mississippi Governor. Barbour believes people can change, that even murders can be rehabilitated.
Contrast that with Mitt Romney’s tough-on-crime criticism of Rick Santorum’s willingness to give ex-felons the vote. Contrast that with Barack Obama’s play-it-safe refusal to put his pardon pen to meaningful use.
There is a Nixon-goes-to-China aspect to all of this, or course. Conservatives like Barbour won’t be mistaken for bleeding heart liberals when they make compassionate gestures. Given Haley’s record of racial insensitivity, his good-ol’-boy reputation will survive a little criticism from self-serving Mississippi Democrats. If Barack Obama followed suit he could be portrayed as soft on crime, especially if his compassionate intervention benefited a disproportionate number of African-American felons (which, given the skewed demographics of our American Gulag, it almost certainly would).
Or is Obama simply afraid of his own shadow?
The folks who might down him as soft on crime are the same folks rending their garments over Barbour’s acts of mercy. Most of these people, regardless of party affiliation, will not vote for a black president no matter what he does; and that for the same reason few African-Americans in South Carolina will be voting for Newt Gingrich. Gingrich understands this dynamic and plays it to his advantage (if you can’t get the black vote, appeal to white racial resentment). Obama would not worsen his position with conservative white people by using his executive power to commute and pardon folks in the federal system; those who would be offended aren’t his demographic.
Political considerations aside, I am impressed by Governor Barbour’s candid compassion.
By Haley Barbour
The furor over the pardons I recently granted as governor of Mississippi initially focused on numbers. I would like to set the record straight.
People thought — incorrectly — that I had let 215 prisoners out of jail because the secretary of state reported that many people received clemency.
In fact, 189 of those people were not released from prison. In most cases, they had already been out for many years. These folks are no more a threat to society now than they were the week before I gave them clemency.
I believe in the governor’s power to grant clemency, but I granted fewer than 10 pardons or reprieves in my first term as governor. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, my staff just didn’t have time to deal with the issue, so at the end of my first term I pardoned only the inmates who had worked successfully at the governor’s mansion that term.
This was not a new thing. For decades, Mississippi governors have granted clemency to the inmates who work at the mansion. I followed that tradition four years ago and did so again at the end of my second term. No one should have been surprised.
Despite all the publicitythis month, few seem to notice the limited scope of my recent actions. I authorized the release of 26 prisoners from custody. As of last week, there were 21,342 inmates in the state corrections system and 60,517 people under Mississippi Department of Corrections supervision. I released 12 one-hundredths of 1 percent (0.0012) of our state’s inmates. About 95 percent of the clemencies I approved were recommended by our state parole board, and I accepted the parole board’s recommendations about 95 percent of the time.
When people realized that only 26 prisoners were being released — and that half of those 26 were given suspended sentences for medical reasons — the political attacks on my pardons shifted. The story became that many of the 13 non-medical releases were murderers. Of those 13, only 10 were pardoned; the other three were put under house arrest or a revocable, indefinite suspension.
All this public noise, then, boils down to 10 inmates — in particular, the five who worked at the governor’s mansion during my second term.
Historically, most of the inmates sent to the mansion, known in Mississippi as trusties, have been murderers, convicted of crimes of passion. Experts agree that these inmates are the least likely to commit another crime and the most likely to serve out their sentences well. My experience has been that this view is correct. About a third of the inmates sent to the mansion were returned to prison because of rules violations or infractions, but most worked there successfully during my terms. All but one of these mansion trusties had been convicted of murder.
The criteria the Corrections Department uses to select the prisoners who work at the mansion narrows the pool to those convicted of terrible crimes, almost always crimes of passion.
These crimes must be punished, but these offenders are not hard-core, cold-blooded criminals. In fact, to work at the mansion, an inmate must be classified as minimum-security by the Department of Corrections.
I always intended to follow the tradition of gubernatorial clemency for the mansion inmates. When I did so at the end of my first term, I was criticized for pardoning murderers. I never made any secret of the fact that I would again pardon those who successfully completed work during my second term.
The mansion inmates I fully released are not threats to society. They have paid the price for their crimes, having served an average of 20 years’ imprisonment.
In Mississippi, the constitutional power of pardon is based on our Christian belief in repentance, forgiveness and redemption — a second chance for those who are rehabilitated and who redeem themselves. Other great religions have similar tenets; so does the U.S. Constitution.
Mississippi spends about $350 million a year on our corrections system, much of it aimed at rehabilitating those who went wrong. Regrettably there are bad actors who will never be rehabilitated, but many who go to prison can be helped. Our state recidivism rate is just above 30 percent, far below the national average.
For some who are rehabilitated and redeem themselves, the governor is the only person who can give them a second chance. I am very comfortable giving such people that opportunity.