Gov. Haley Barbour left a lot of people reeling with his recent round of pardons and clemencies. Among the list are vicious, premeditated murderers. It wasn't the first time he's done this--remember that we broke the news of his string of woman-killer pardons in 2008--but this time the state and national media actually paid attention. As a result, Barbour's popularity is almost certainly at an all-time low. One Republican woman with whom I often disagree on Facebook posted that his approval ratings are probably in the single digits now.
Beyond the victims of the so-called "crimes of passion"--Barbour's insulting and outmoded phrase for the murders many of his trustys committed--and their families, I perhaps feel the most sorry for people in our state who consider themselves "tough on crime" and who thought that Barbour was an ally.
In the statements he finally gave late last week after refusing to speak with the victims' families or the media about the pardons, Barbour cast himself as a compassionate Christian who is helping reformed criminals who have done their time and need a second chance. His standard for that seems to be that he likes them. Many of Barbour's ardent supporters are stunned, as are his longtime critics. In essence, everyone seems surprised that Barbour isn't as tough on crime as he'd made himself out in the past (like when he called in a State of the State address for harsher sentences for crimes committed with guns--like many of those he pardoned).
Meantime, Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, is coming across as much tougher on crime, looking like Wyatt Earp as he sends out a posse of "public integrity" investigators to put murderers back in prison.
How does this all make sense?
Well, I would posit that Barbour may not be as anti-crime as he said he was. The sad truth is that people who scream the loudest about crime are often the ones who do the least to stop it--or prevent it.
Of course, there is some good stuff in Barbour's statement about giving second chances and being forgiving. But why didn't we hear talk sooner from a governor of his stature about reforming the criminal-justice system (at least in his second term)? Why couldn't Barbour have led the state into serious prosecutorial reform and called for an investigation into our mucked-up criminal-justice system--one where a popular district attorney (Ed Peters) allowed his assistant (Bobby DeLaughter) to bury evidence that could have cleared Cedric Willis of rape and murder charges before he went to prison for 12 years for crimes he didn't do? What about all the (black) men DNA evidence has cleared in our state?
If Barbour really meant his compassionate statements, he would have called for a moratorium on the death penalty in Mississippi until we can check out every death-row case (and death-penalty cheerleader Jim Hood should do the same thing). There is nothing Christian about not stopping the execution of a potentially innocent person, even if being pro-death-penalty is considered a great vote getter in our state.
The silver lining to Pardongate is that Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisans such as myself stood together in outrage against the pardons of the brutal killers on Barbour's list, even as many of us saw the point of pardoning someone imprisoned for years for selling pot. In many ways, it was like the Personhood vote in November: The issue transcended party, and Mississippians stood together against a bad and dangerous effort.
Mississippians, I hope we can keep this spirit and apply it squarely to crime solutions in our state. Politicians such as Barbour (and let's be frank, Hood; it wasn't like he sent a posse out for the 2008 pardon recipients, to our knowledge) too often say what we want to hear about crime and criminals, rather than finding and promoting evidence-based approaches to preventing crime. And when they do promise crime miracles, they always fail because there is a lot more to "fighting" crime than politicians like to admit.
For one thing, it's complicated by economic conditions and the would-be criminal's circumstances growing up. That is not an apologist statement; I want murderers and rapists off the streets as much as anyone. But I also want to stop crime from happening in the first place, and that goes directly back to good public education, access to health care (including mental services) and building self-esteem in communities most prone to crime due to the curse of history.
The science behind helping a child not become a criminal rather than criminalizing him or her into a violent life is behind Valerie Wells' cover story this issue. The "cradle-to-prison pipeline" is real, folks--and all this demonizing of young people (especially but not only children of color) feeds directly into a more violent society. Read her story to see why and to get ideas on stopping the pipeline. Politicians aren't likely to lead on this one; we must step up.
The belief that we can spend time stopping crime and reversing criminal tendencies before they worsen is behind the JFP's support of the domestic batterer's intervention program we helped Sandy Middleton and the Center for Violence Prevention start in the area. And it is working: Almost none of the batterers who have entered the program (or whom judges sent there) have re-offended.
You see, each of us can, and should, hold several different thoughts at once. We must do everything we can to prevent crime from happening and, thus, save lives of victims and would-be criminals. At the same time, we can believe that picking a small handful of "trustys" and pretending that their so-called "crimes of passion" make it OK to release them early is a terribly wrong thing to do. Especially if, as Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps told the JFP, those men aren't getting any kind of evidenced-based intervention before being let loose to potentially re-offend. Batterers usually don't stop battering without such intervention.
And we can believe in forgiveness, even as we work to ensure that a few dangerous criminals don't get to vote, hunt or go eat their mama's butter beans every Sunday while our prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders, perhaps with a few Cedric Willises thrown in.
There is a better way to do this. We must demand it from our politicians and ourselves.