The case of the ambush and killing of four police officers in a coffee shop near Seattle on Sunday is exceptionally troubling – emphasis on exceptionally.
Four police officers shot, execution-style. Their families struggle to recover as they mourn. The suspect, Maurice Clemmons – released from jail just days before the ambush, despite a long history of violent crime and known mental problems. After a massive manhunt, he's dead, too, shot early Tuesday by a policeman investigating a stolen car.
The extraordinary nature of this crime is why it's captured the nation's attention. But it's also a reason for caution. High-profile crimes have a tendency to rank emotion over reason when it comes to the criminal justice system.
Remember, for instance, the wrenching story of young Polly Klaas, kidnapped from a slumber party in her California home in 1993 and then murdered. The case served as a catalyst for the state's "three strikes" law, the nation's toughest law for repeat offenders.
The law has netted violent offenders, but also nonviolent ones, and it has helped swell the state's prison population. In August, with California prisons at nearly twice their capacity, a panel of judges ordered the state to significantly reduce the number of inmates.
In the Clemmons case, the public and law enforcement have voiced outrage that he was granted clemency in 2000 by Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate who at that time was governor of Arkansas.
Mr. Huckabee cited Clemmons's age – he was 16 when he began a crime spree that included burglaries and robberies and that resulted in a total sentence of more than 100 years. The parole board also unanimously supported clemency for Mr. Clemmons, who had served 11 years.
But within months of his release, Clemmons violated parole and was again in prison. Oddly, when he was paroled three years later, he was finally served with arrest warrants for the crime that constituted the parole violation – aggravated robbery. But the warrants came too late and the charges were dropped. Clemmons moved to Washington.
With a preacher background, Huckabee believes in the possibility of redemption. He also had doubts about the fairness of the Arkansas justice system. As governor, he granted more than 1,000 pardons or clemency requests, that's twice the number of his three predecessors combined.
Indeed, pardons and clemency by governors and presidents have dramatically declined over the last two decades, according to The Sentencing Project – an organization that promotes reform in sentencing laws and practice. There's little political downside to letting prisoner appeals pile up, while a case such as Clemmons's exposes the political risks of commuting sentences.
But Huckabee is also right. Redemption is possible – given the right cases, the right preparation, and adequate support once an inmate is back on the outside. And the justice system is not always just – from cookie-cutter mandatory minimum sentences to inadequate defense representation in capital cases.
With about 1 in 100 adults in prison or in jail, the US is the prison capital of the world. Shrinking state budgets are forcing corrections officials into a cost-cutting mode, and some smart states into seizing the day on prison reform. They're reducing the sentences of nonviolent offenders, and diverting early nonviolent offenders into rehab programs. They're granting more parole – but focusing their monitoring on high-risk parolees.
These are all positive trends. But the risk of a high-profile case such as Clemmons's is that it will bring a backlash leading to a wrong policy. That it will continue to discourage clemency, for instance, or that it will somehow slow the momentum toward reform.
Investigators need to look at how it was that Clemmons slipped through the fingers of law enforcement not once, but several times. They are likely to find flaws that should be corrected. But they must be careful about drawing broad conclusions from an exceptional case.