Arkansas governor to pardon son: A precedent for forgiveness?

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe is being accused of playing favorites by pardoning his son for a 2003 felony drug conviction. But understanding what is lost for non-violent offenders could help illustrate the importance of forgiveness.

Danny Johnston/AP
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe waves as he enters a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee as legislators applaud at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Nov. 13.

The decision by outgoing Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe to pardon his son for a 2003 marijuana felony drug conviction might tempt some to say he’s a dad playing favorites.

However, the advocacy group, The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., views this pardon as both the act of a good parent and a worthy executive leader by exemplifying the importance of forgiveness which may allow convicts to be accepted back into society after doing time for their crimes. 

According to reports, the governor, who is set to leave office in January due to term limits, announced he will pardon his son Kyle, now 34, for his 2003 felony conviction of marijuana possession with intent to deliver.

At the time of his son’s arrest in 2003, Beebe was public about his son not being treated differently and claims that this pardon is in keeping with that spirit since his will be among 700 pardons issued this year.

As a parent, I can understand being moved to forgiveness by a son’s plea and apology. The question in my mind was whether this governor played favorites with this pardon, or led by example in forgiving his son for his crime.

For starters, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, the sheer volume of pardons made by Beebe over the past year may place the decision to add his own son to that legion a completely reasonable action.

“If, like so many other governors and even the President, this governor had only a handful of pardons to his credit I would say it might be bias,” Mr. Mauer said in a phone interview. 

“However he’s done 700 pardons in a year. That’s a very credible number. Under those circumstances it would be his son who was being done the injustice to not be considered for a pardon if he qualified.”

In addition, Mauer says Beebe should be lauded for doing something that should gain the attention of every parent in America because it spotlights how much is lost when a young person receives a felony conviction for a non-violent crime.

The decision may also show us what may be gained by such acts of forgiveness towards those who are truly penitent for their crimes.

“Having a felony record can have a very substantial impact on a person’s life,” says Mauer. “We like to say that you’ve ‘paid your debt to society.’ However, the reality is that debt is never really considered paid. It affects employment, food stamps, voting rights, and carries a general societal stigma.”

Officer Joshua Thomas of the Arkansas Department of Community Punishment Office of Adult Probation in Fort Smith, Ark. explains that in Arkansas a convicted felon can’t vote or own a gun.

“There’s a difference between having something expunged – which law enforcement can still see on a background check – and being pardoned – which makes it completely disappear. Gone. Clean slate,” says Mr. Thomas.

In addition to the aforementioned liabilities nationwide, students with a felony drug conviction can lose Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and become ineligible for aid – for a first offense it’s one year, for a second offense it’s indefinite. 

In addition, felony offenses can prohibit individuals from getting a license for different professions, including teaching and high-demand trades like plumbing.

With few state-to-state exceptions, a felony conviction on your record can also affect young adults seeking public housing. In fact, just being arrested while living in public housing – even before anyone is found guilty – can often trigger eviction of you or your entire household from public or private housing, according to the website Bronx Defenders

Like any other convicted felon seeking pardon, Kyle Beebe, who served three years in prison for his crime, had to write a letter, in this case, to his dad, asking for pardon.

"I am asking for a second chance at life. I am asking for a second chance to be the man that I know that I can be," Kyle Beebe wrote, according to CNN. "At the time of my arrest I was living in a fantasy world, not reality. I was young and dumb. At that time in my life I felt like I was missing something and I tried to fill that emptiness by selling drugs.”

The governor told local media that his son “has grown up a lot since those days.”

It reminded me of when one of my sons accused me of what he termed “playing favorites” because for several days I would not let him forget something he did wrong, and he felt I had nagged his brothers less for similar offenses.

As many parents know, that’s not playing favorites, that’s being able to spot when “nagging” is a benefit and when it’s a burden.

I judge both the punishment and how long I will continue to remind a child of his offense by whether he is; A) Still arguing that he was right; B) Genuinely sorry; C) Giving lip service; D) Clearly unrepentant and in danger of recommitting the “crime.”

"Kids, when they're young, do stupid stuff. He was no different," Beebe told KATV in Little Rock. "If they've straightened up, to get their life back on track and have a second chance, so this is no different. It's different because it's my son.”

Mauer says he hopes more people will now pressure their state executives to use their pardon power “to help remove the stigma of felony conviction and open the many doors that remain shut to those convicted of non-violent felonies.”

There may be much to be gained by unlocking the societal doors for convicted, non-violent, offenders after they have been released from their physical prisons. Those who have learned their lesson may have a great deal to teach us about forgiveness and moving forward in life.

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