Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi created a stir this month by issuing hundreds of pardons during his last two weeks in office. The majority of these pardons – 90%, the governor claims – were given to individuals no longer in custody, to restore their civil rights. Some of the clemencies, however, were granted to men convicted of capital crimes that had spent part of their sentences as inmate trustees in the Governor’s Mansion, a good-behavior privilege that put the inmates in close contact with the governor in a domestic capacity.
Detractors point at these pardons and claim that the accident of proximity to the governor should not merit clemency for serious crimes. Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley summed up the prevailing sentiment in a quote run by the Associated Press: “Serving your sentence at the Governor’s Mansion where you pour liquor, cook and clean should not earn a pardon for murder.”
While it’s hard to disagree with such a rational-seeming sound bite, we nonetheless believe that the practice of clemency by the executive branch of state government is a valuable part of our criminal justice system, and do not find fault with Gov. Barbour’s end-of-term pardons. Moreover, the fact that the governor had the opportunity to know and interact with these inmates on a daily basis should count for something. We are not arguing for quid pro quo (no, Commissioner Presley, we don’t believe that bartending, cooking and cleaning should, on their face, erase a murder conviction), but we do think that the clemency tradition is augmented – not hurt – by having the pardoner know the person he’s pardoning.
This is the rationale Gov. Barbour used in defending the pardons. In an article written by Jessica Bakeman for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the governor recounts a childhood story about an inmate (convicted of murder) who was assigned to his ailing grandfather as a caregiver, saying that experience gave him insight into the importance of second chances. “The state is not an individual that wants vengeance,” said Barbour, quoted in the Clarion-Ledger article. “We believe in the forgiveness of sins.” (Never mind the fact that there are currently 57 inmates on Mississippi’s Death Row, and that of the 15 executions carried out by the state since 1975, nine of them occurred during Barbour’s two terms as governor.)
As for the majority of the pardons issued by Gov. Barbour, we take him at his word that most were issued to already-released offenders, and that most were granted with the approval of the state’s parole board. We recognize that end-of-term pardons are a generally accepted practice of outgoing chief executives – be they US Presidents or state Governors – and are a custom that, in the best case, can further justice when the justice system has failed, and in the worst case simply demonstrate the state’s capacity for forgiveness and second chances.