A quality of mercy in Haley Barbour's pardons

As he stepped down as Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour pardoned more than 200 people, including some convicted of murder. His action, and the uproar over it, help ignite a useful debate on using mercy as a tool for justice.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
On the porch of his home in Wesson, Miss., Thomas Ailes displays Executive Order No. 1083, which pardons him for a marijuana conviction from the 1970s. The departing Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, pardoned more than 200 people.

Haley Barbour, who once toyed with running for president, kicked up a Katrina-like political storm this month as he departed the governor’s mansion in Mississippi. In an act of unexpected mercy, he pardoned more than 200 people, some of them convicted for murder and other violent crimes.

The law-and-order state of Mississippi was stunned. The state attorney general, the new governor, and the legislature are now all taking actions that signal a loud “objection!” A court has put a hold on some of the pardons.

America’s justice system grants the pardon power to most governors as well as the president. It has been used – or abused – ever since George Washington. What makes Mr. Barbour’s actions so startling is not just the high number of pardons but that he so openly challenged a four-decade-long trend in America toward harsh and certain sentencing.

Barbour justified his move simply as an act of Christian forgiveness. But it was also assisted by recommendations of probation and parole officials. While his timing and transparency are in question, he has at least reopened a needed national discussion on how justice must be tempered by mercy. America’s incarceration rate cannot continue to far exceed that of other developed nations.

“I believe in second chances,” he said.

The pardon power has long served not only to correct the excesses and errors of justice but also to further justice. Pardoning can help restore a convict’s place in society, providing a model for others still in jail. If done with consistency and not favoritism, pardons are a tool for the reform of individuals and thus a safety measure for society.

As Shakespeare wrote in “The Merchant of Venice,” mercy can twice bless – the giver and the receiver. And in the biblical story of the prodigal son, the father’s mercy not only serves the humbled son who went astray but is a lesson for the prideful one who stayed home and resented the benefits showered on his sibling.

The right use of mercy in the justice system can help society channel strong emotions of retribution and vengeance away from the criminal and toward the criminal act itself. After all, the deterrence of crime is the main goal. If criminal behavior were really a permanent trait, then all criminals would be given life sentences.

But they are not. Legislators inject mercy into sentencing laws by mandating shorter prison times for lesser offenses. Judges, juries, and especially prosecutors – in their plea-bargaining powers – often look to a defendant’s circumstances and character to mete out justice that balances the interests of victims, society, and the individual. Governors, with their pardon power, serve as just one more backstop to prevent assembly-line justice that has too few outlets for redemption.

Pardons can often be seen as thwarting justice by lessening a prison sentence or wiping a conviction off the books. Governors must explain their decisions (which Barbour did not do until days after his action). Pardons must show a consistency of reasoning, perhaps by using guidelines set by the state. Victims and their families must know the depth of a convict’s contrition to know they will be safe if he or she is released.

Convicts who truly repent and reform do not do so to earn or deserve a pardon. Their change must be simply heartfelt and sincere. Rehabilitation is a goal unto itself. Like grace, then, a pardon should be merely given, more as an acknowledgment than a reward.

American justice needs to return to a 19th-century notion that criminals can be redeemed if mercy is wisely used as a tool of justice and not seen as its opponent.

As Portia states in “The Merchant of Venice”:

[Mercy] is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice.

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