2-K Bill on 2-T Barbour
Haley Barbour, a very successful Governor of Mississippi, ended his two terms with a national controversy because of pardons and commutations of sentences he issued as he was leaving office. One of the things that makes this interesting to Presbyterians is that both the Governor and one the persons whose sentence he commuted are PCA Presbyterians.
A few contextual observations: (1) The story was broken by the state newspaper, the Clarion Ledger, which it is an understatement to say has been no friend of the Governor. Furthermore, as is common with the news media of all stripes, there was not a little sensationalism in the reporting. (2) Attorney General Jim Hood, who looks to me like he ought be selling cars, the lone Democrat holding statewide office in Mississippi, who has got an injunction to put the pardons on hold, has feuded with the Governor throughout their simultaneous holding of office. He and the Governor appear to get a great deal of joy from frustrating one another. (3) If the pardons end up being permanently overturned, it will be on the technicality that the required newspaper legal notices were not published or not published in a timely way. It will not be because the outrage of victims’ families, or the lack of the authority of the Governor to do what he did, or because of considerations of justice. (4) Some of those pardoned were trustees who served at the Governor’s mansion, and it is a tradition in
for Governors to pardon such trustees. (Trustees in the Governor’s mansion remind me of an old movie in which the warden is being shaved by a prisoner. The warden inquires why the man is imprisoned, and, as he draws the razor along the neck of the warden, the prisoner responds, “I slit a man’s throat.”) (5) With the exception of Fox one can be almost certain that, had a liberal Democrat done the same thing, the media would have applauded his humanitarianism. (6) Skilled and wily as the Governor is, there is no way he is going to win the PR battle. Mississippi
(7) The Governor has tried to explain: (a) Most of those who were pardoned had been out of prison for some time all ready. The Governor did not just “turn loose” a bunch of prisoners in his last days in office. (b) The Governor claims that in 90% of the cases he followed the recommendations of the parole board. (c) Several cases involved releasing prisoners on medical grounds, which saves the state the costs of their treatment. (d) The Governor also argues that he showed mercy to some, who appear to be changed (and so far that has not been a Willie Horton in the bunch), in order to let those who are trying to get on with their lives in society further get on, including enabling them to get jobs.
All of this won’t but should bring up the issue of what to do with criminals. (1) It seems to me that the state, using the discretionary power of the sword granted to it, will have to execute some. (2) Others are dangerous and uncontrollable and will need to be caged, medicated, and kept from contact with society for so long as they live.
(3) But what about the others? (a) It seems to me that, when society through its government imprisons someone, it ought to be able to control the environment in which that person will exist. But it can’t. Prisoners are subject to being intimidated, beat up, raped, and murdered by other prisoners. In prison they are further imprisoned by other prisoners or the gangs of which those prisoners are members. How government can provide protection of prisoners from criminal acts by other prisoners, I do not know. But I think it should.
(b) It seems to me that we have to recognize the cost to society of locking up long term those who may be eventually released. Human beings adapt to their environment in order to survive. It ought to go without saying that the way a prisoner learns to live in order make a go of it in prison is not a way that will make for successful living in free society. Yet they are trained for years to live in the culture of prison.
(c) It seems to me we also have to take account of the effects of the deprivation of hope on humans, including prisoners. Such things as mandatory sentencing, mandatory serving all or a large part of sentences, and locking people in cages are hope killing, and the killing of hope usually means the killing of motivation.
(d) It seems to me that society ought to identify as best it can those who can be helped, and try to help them with a view to their reentering society. That is, while not giving in to liberal naïveté or do-gooderism, there ought to be serious attempts rehabilitation.
Of course, these things cost money. And, while society is willing to pay for places to lock up prisoners, it is not willing to pay for anything that smacks of making prisons “country clubs.” Of course, that prison at its best is bad punishment is the reality, but, like most political issues, is easily demagogued by politicians.
What does all this have to do with Governor Barbour? I do not know what I think about the Governor’s decisions about pardon and clemency. I do not know the facts, nor do I know his motives. But I do believe that the historic discretionary power of the executive to issue pardons and to grant clemency to criminals is worth preserving. As a Calvinist I am not an optimist about people in general, much less politicians and prisoners, but, as a sinner, I do believe in mercy.
And I might add for us Christians that we might do well to ask why we get so worked up about the civil justice system while we are indifferent to the ecclesiastical system in our local churches.