While poring over Gov. Barbour's statement on "Pardongate," I found something I never expected: a point of agreement. And no, it wasn't just the part where he admitted he wasn't perfect (although I wholeheartedly agree with that as well).
Instead, I found myself nodding along to this:
"Mississippians are mostly Christians. We have Jews, Hindus, Muslims as well as atheists and agnostics, but most Mississippians profess to be Christians of some type. Marsha and I are evangelical Christians—Presbyterians. Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances. I believe in second chances, and I try hard to be forgiving."
I grew up in an evangelical church, and while forgiveness and second chances weren't as common pulpit themes as hellfire and brimstone, I appreciate Barbour's acknowledgement of their prominence in Christian theology. Indeed, forgiveness and second chances should be the cornerstones of our criminal-justice and correctional systems in Mississippi.
That's why we should offer court diversion programs—like a Domestic Abuser Intervention Program—throughout the state. It's why the system should approach drug offenders with rehabilitation and counseling instead of incarceration. A correctional system focused on forgiveness and second chances would spare no expense in ensuring that inmates had access to GED classes and college courses and were given the job skills necessary to be employable, productive members of society upon their release.
Better yet, a criminal-justice system based on forgiveness and second chances would focus on rehabilitating youthful offenders instead of chaining them to desks and railings as punishment.
For years, groups like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have decried the "schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline," described as pushing students from schools to the criminal-justice system through needlessly draconian zero-tolerance policies.
Instead of focusing on behavior-modification programs, our school systems criminalize typically youthful behaviors that were historically dealt with in the classroom or principal's office. When we insist on bringing police into our schools, we create hostile, less-than-conducive learning environments. And once students enter the criminal-justice system it is very difficult to remain free of its destructive pull. Currently, Mississippi's juvenile-justice system acts as an entry point into the adult correctional system, not an entry point for intervention in a vulnerable young teenager's life.
Of course, a Mississippi that truly embraced the ethos of forgiveness would immediately restore constitutional rights to felons—particularly voting rights—after they have completed their prison terms. Continuing to deny convicted felons the chance to participate in the democratic process after the courts have recognized their debts as paid in anathema to the theory of rehabilitative justice.
Believe it or not, Mississippi is actually moving toward a more just and equitable prison system. The Pew Center for Research on the States' 2010 "Prison Count" report found that Mississippi has, in recent years, lessened the percentage of time required of non-violent offenders before the system can consider them for parole. Further, the development of improved risk-assessment tools has drastically reduced the number of parolees who re-offend. Indeed, over the last decade, Mississippi has actually decreased the number of prisoners in state correctional facilities.
Of course, there is plenty more to be done. While the state correctional system is reducing the rate of incarceration, Mississippi still has one of the highest percentages of incarcerated citizens in the country, the Sentencing Project's 50-state survey found. Further, the rate of African American men incarcerated in the state, the use of the death penalty and the continued felony prosecution of minor drug offenses remain problematic.
The good news? Gov. Barbour, as he returns to the private sector, now has a chance to continue to pursue the policies of forgiveness and second chances that his statement espouses. I can't imagine who would be better positioned to lobby for true reform to the criminal-justice system than a conservative former governor who, by his own admission, now recognizes the injustices inherent in our current corrections scheme.
If, for some reason, Gov. Barbour decides not to use his influence to create a better, more humane penal system, I'm afraid that the taint of Pardongate will result in more red tape, legislative barriers and public backlash for those who truly deserve a pardon. In the end, Barbour didn't just tarnish his own legacy, he tarnished the legitimate and necessary power of the pardon in the state of Mississippi.
Whitney Barkley is an attorney who works as a facilitator in the DAIP program through the Center for Violence Prevention.