Columnist: Mixing Mercy With Justice: Barbour Had a Point

January 23, 2012
by Neal Peirce

"You'll be woken in the morning by a convicted murderer."

It was some years ago (1982), and the governor of Mississippi - William F. Winter - was talking. He'd graciously invited me to spend the night at the governor's mansion. As he predicted, the next morning I was indeed politely awakened by a convict serving as a trusty at the mansion.

So earlier this month, when outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour stirred up a hornet's nest with his pardon or clemency for more than 200 offenders, I wondered if mansion trusties were among the bunch. And indeed, five - including four convicted murderers - were included. I checked with my friend Winter (now 88), and he confirmed it was a long-standing Mississippi custom not just to assign several well-behaved and stabilized criminals from the state penitentiary to the mansion but to suspend their sentences at the end of each governor's term.

Barbour said he'd had so much confidence in the mansion trusties that he'd let his grandchildren play with them. Winter told me there'd even been one occasion, when other staff was off duty and he was obliged to be out of town, that he'd felt free to leave his wife, feeling ill, to the care of a single murderer trusty.

The Mississippi custom raises an intriguing question: Whatever happened to the idea of rehabilitation in American justice as a whole? Historically, notes Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, it was common for governors to issue a significant number of pardons and commutations - typically just before Christmas, in a spirit of mercy and forgiveness.

But since the 1970s and the "get tough on crime" crusade, we've focused almost exclusively on punishment and retribution. We've increasingly spurned the idea of possible parole or pardon as an incentive for prisoners' self-improvement - notwithstanding convincing research showing that even perpetrators of the most serious crimes often mature and become a radically reduced threat to public safety.

In fact, there's been a virtual explosion of sentences for life imprisonment without parole - up to roughly 140,000 nationally, a doubling as a percentage of all prisoners since 1992. Most of the sentences are for murder, but many also are for burglary, robbery, carjacking and the like.

Included are offenders we have reason to fear and want to keep off the streets for several years. But forever? Do we really want to leave them with zero hope of ever going free, so that there's no incentive for reform and good behavior?

Then there is the cost issue. Increasingly, with life sentences, we're seeing 50- and 60-year-old convicts still behind bars. Statistically, they pose scant threat to public safety. But as they age and their health deteriorates, the cost to the public for holding them runs as high as three times that of incarcerating younger convicts.

Is gritting our teeth and being vengeful worth $75,000 a year to hold a mature man who's already spent many years behind bars? Couldn't we toss away mandatory sentences and trust parole boards to make sensible case-by-case judgments?

And to speed our rethinking, couldn't our state governors - and the president - show some initiative through their power of pardon and commutations?

President Obama - surprisingly - is failing miserably on this score. He's issued just 22 pardons and one commutation, barely exercising his important executive power to correct injustices and excessive sentences. African-Americans, heavily overrepresented in prisons (in comparison to crimes they actually commit), have special reason to be disappointed.

In 2010, for example, Congress reduced penalties for crack cocaine possession (most frequent among blacks) to 18 times the comparative penalty for powder cocaine (more popular among whites). Before, the crack penalty had been 100 times higher. But the change wasn't made retroactive.

"With a stroke of the pen," Mauer notes, the president could reduce existing sentences to conform to the new standards. Such a move, he said, would represent "justice and fairness" and could even include checks to exclude any convict that corrections officials identify as "a terror in prison."

Governors, Mauer suggests, could also respond to growing public belief that our "war" on drugs is excessive by reducing sentences by some set percentages - from five to three years, for example. Released earlier, prisoners can more easily rebuild their ties to their family and community. The reduced sentences can also deliver substantial economies for hard-pressed state budgets.

The good news is that the politics of reduced sentencing has become less partisan, with some conservative politicians joining reformers on the left to question our massive incarceration numbers and look for ways to let up on harsh and long sentences while saving public funds.

In this sense, Gov. Barbour has done the nation a favor by reminding us that the broad powers of our elected officials can be used not just to punish wrongdoers but to help redeem those ready for a new life.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.