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Haley Barbour pardons: Why were the forgiven so disproportionately white?

The fact that white convicts had a far better chance than black ones of getting a gubernatorial pardon from former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour may say more about racial misunderstanding than prejudice.

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But the “tests” applied by pardon boards and attorneys may also favor whites, critics say. In most such proceedings, lawyers consider “conduct, character and reputation” of applicants, the “need” of the applicant, the opinions of prosecutors and judges, and then gauge the level of remorse and atonement of the applicant.

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If they key pardon players – judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and, ultimately, the chief executive – are for the most part white, cultural ignorance could come into play. Rather than relying on any kind of conscious bias, experts say, a pardon officer may misread the level of remorse exhibited by a black pardon applicant for cultural reasons, given that African-Americans may express contrition in different ways than whites.

“To the extent that [pardon boards] allow their staff to be making judgments into somebody’s attitude — that’s an entry point for bias,” Jack Glaser, a discrimination expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told ProPublica. “It’s not that it’s a reflection of racial biases, because there are also cultural attitudes. White people understand white people better. They may not understand the outlooks of minority people as well.”

Researchers have found that convicts whose crimes were committed more than 20 years ago, those who are married, and those who are financially stable had better luck getting pardons. But even though such factors could disproportionately impact African-Americans, especially the large populations of poor blacks in the South, they don't fully explain what's happening.

“When the effects of those factors and others were controlled using statistical methods, however, race [still] emerged as one of the strongest predictors of a pardon,” the ProPublica team wrote.

The same notion held true for the Mississippi pardons, a pair of University of Georgia researchers found. "The odds of a random sample of the prison population coming out with the same or greater disparity in racial proportions as the pardons list is less than one in a trillion, if race were truly unrelated to pardons,” University of Georgia researchers Kim Love-Meyers and Jaxk Reeves have stated.

Given its likely wide range of causes, pardon disparities may be tough to fix. But making the process less secret and mysterious may be a start, experts say, as would implementing review boards that could pinpoint patterns of racial disparity.

In Mississippi, the legislature reacted to the uproar over the pardons by ending a long-running "trusty" program that allowed convicts to work at the Governor's Mansion. Five of those pardoned by Barbour worked under him at the executive residence, pointing out another truth behind pardons that ProPublica unearthed: Connections help.

Despite anger about the pardons, few in Mississippi believe Barbour acted on the basis of racial prejudice. Only last summer, the NAACP called Barbour a "shining example" for freeing two African-American women serving life sentences for a robbery that yielded $11. But offering at least one hint into how he weighed the pardon applications before him, Barbour declined to officially pardon the women, which would have restored their voting rights, saying they didn't show sufficient remorse for their crimes.

 Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green will convene a hearing on Monday to start looking into whether Barbour's pardons circumvented the state constitution. The race of those pardoned, however, will not be considered in that hearing.

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