Governor Barbour’s Pardons: Right or Wrong?

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This week in Mississippi ex-Governor Haley Barbour pardoned over 200 people. A substantial number were convicted of murder, DUI manslaughter, manslaughter, armed robbery, and some other violent offenses. Many were also convicted of non-violent drug offenders and property crimes. These pardons made national news and touched off a fire-storm of protest across Mississippi. The families of the victims were outraged, hurt, and dismayed by Governor Barbour’s actions. I listened to people on the T.V. and radio who said they had been staunch Barbour supporters but after the pardons would not support him for dog catcher. Attorney General Jim Hood filed for a Temporary Injunction and it was granted. According to Attorney General Hood many of the pardons were granted without strict compliance with the Mississippi Constitution. The Mississippi Constitution grants the Governor the power and grant reprieves. The section is quoted below in full:

Article 5, Section 124. Reprieves and Pardons.

In all criminal and penal cases, excepting those of treason and impeachment, the governor shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons, to remit fines, and in cases of forfeiture, to stay the collection until the end of the next session of the legislature, and by and with the consent of the senate to remit forfeitures. In cases of treason he shall have power to grant reprieves, and by and with consent of the senate, but may respite the sentence until the end of the next session of the legislature; but no pardon shall be granted before conviction; and in cases of felony, after conviction no pardon shall be granted until the applicant therefor shall have published for thirty days, in some newspaper in the county where the crime was committed, and in case there be no newspaper published in said county, then in an adjoining county, his petition for pardon, setting forth therein the reasons why such pardon should be granted.

SOURCES: 1832 art V § 10; 1869 art V § 10.

The gist of Attorney General Hood’s complaint is that some of the people who received pardons did not publish in the newspaper thirty (30) days before the pardons were granted. If you look at the highlighted section above you can see the Mississippi Constitution uses the word “shall” be published. This was the basis of the Temporary Restraining Order granted by Judge Green blocking the release of some inmates from prison apparently because the Attorney General could not find proof they had published in the paper. A final hearing has been set and it should be an interesting court hearing.
I would also like to direct attention to the language about pardons. One should note the Mississippi Constitution says pardons must be published. It does not say reprieves shall be published. In fact it does not place any requirement on a Governor’s power to reprieve. So I would suggest the reductions of sentences and commutations that Governor Barbour granted are safe from legal attack.

Let’s leave the legal aspects of the pardons and discuss the moral aspects. In order to empathize with the families who lost loved ones to a violent crime it is necessary to “crawl inside their skin” and feel what they feel. I suspect anyone of us who lost a loved one to a violent crime would want the perpetrator in jail for as long as possible. Am I right or wrong? When I put myself in the “skin of the other person” I can feel the loss, anger, and outrage. But do these natural human feelings fun counter to the tradition notions of our legal system which is founded in part on Christian principle of forgiveness and redemption?

I think it is hard to deny that our society is based on principles of forgiveness, redemption, and pardon for those who admit their wrong and apologize. Isn’t the Bible based on forgiveness, redemption, and doing good deeds? Of course there must be some form of punishment but for how long? Some people probably feel that anyone convicted of murder, manslaughter, or any other violent crime should be in prison forever, regardless of how they act in prison or what redeeming things they do. Does this feeling run counter to the teachings of the Bible? Others take a different view and say that people should have the opportunity to redeem themselves and re-enter society. I suppose at the end of the day that is a policy decision.

I have heard it said that the majority of the people Governor Barbour pardoned were already out of prison. I did not check on this fact. Does that make a difference? For years I have argued the criminal laws in this country are too harsh and sentences too long. America incarcerates more people per year than any other western society. Up until the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act people sentenced for first time, small possession of cocaine base could routinely get 14-20 years in prison without any form of parole. Since the 1980’s the laws in the Federal and State System kept getting more severe each year until I thought there would be no end to the punishment. Now I have seen a change and interestingly it does not seem to be a concept of humanity or enlighten in human understanding that has brought about this change but rather the financial cost of incarcerating so many people for such a long time. Wall Street brought about the collapse of the economy and some of the more Draconian aspects of the criminal justice system.

The bottom line is this: Should anyone convicted of a violent crime, like a murder be pardoned? If so when? If not, then do we believe in redemption and rehabilitation? These are the questions that have to be answered as a matter of public policy. Personally I think allowing people who have committed a non-violent offense to get a pardon and completely clear their records is in most cases a good thing. The application of this rule to violent crimes is more difficult to apply, but still a matter of policy. If the people of Mississippi want the Governor to retain a pardon power, I believe they want the pardon process to be completely open, transparent, and with adequate notice for public input. That is my two cents worth.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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