Tuesday, December 01, 2009

In defense of Mike Huckabee (a title I never thought I'd write.)

Occasionally I make a post in which I take a very unpopular position because I believe it is right.

Also occasionally I end up having to defend a conservative Republican because they were right about something.

And both of those are the case in this post.

A lot is being made in the media about the murder of four police officers in Washington State by Maurice Clemmons, an ex-con from Arkansas who was sentenced there to 95 years for a series of violent offenses but who subsequently had his sentence commuted by then-Governor Mike Huckabee (who ran for President in 2008 and may run again in 2012.) It's not the first time that Huckabee has been criticized for a pardon or sentence commutation; during last year's campaign he was criticized for letting a man go who later killed a woman in Missouri.

Certainly the families of the victims have a point that had Huckabee not commuted Clemmons' sentence to time served then the tragic events of this week would never have happened and four parents (and all four of the murdered officers were parents) would have tucked their children into bed last night instead of a grieving spouse having to explain to those children why daddy (or mommy, as one of the murdered officers was a woman) won't be there to tuck them in ever again.

And you can be sure that people working for Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and any other potential 2012 Republican nominee is filing every story about this for use later (and yes, I'm sure that David Axelrod has been putting together a file on this story too, in case Huckabee gets far enough to be running against Obama in 2012.)

However, Huckabee is correct when he points out that the board which makes recommendations made this recommendation and he acted on it. Further the whole affair highlights a broader issue.

Governors have the right to make pardons and commute sentences. But (Huckabee apparently being an exception) most make very few or none. The reason why is obvious: Even if 999 out of a thousand pardons or commutations go on and live productive, meaningful lives (meaning among other things that we as taxpayers are no longer paying to keep them locked up) it is the one out of a thousand who does something like murder four police officers in cold blood that you will keep hearing about. Nowhere is the old adage "nobody remembers what you've done right but everyone remembers your mistakes" more apropos than in politics. So most Governors simply don't want to take the electoral risk, and often refuse to even go along with the recommendations of a pardons board that in may cases they hand-picked themselves. Many never issue a single pardon or sentence commutation the entire time when they are Governor. True that pardons boards are far from infallible but when the system gets to the point where the final arbiter (a state Governor) because of fear of being attacked in some future election automatically refuses to consider a pardon or commutation request when one comes up, then the system has defeated itself. Why even have a way on the books to get a commutation or pardon if the answer even before reading the application is "NO?"

The truth is, most people who receive a commutation prove the people who gave it to them right (it's not like it's easy to even get a recommendation from the appropriate board in the first place,) and don't go on and re-offend. And at that, there are many who might not even need to be there in the first place: Millions incarcerated. But do they all need to be? I have a friend who is a convicted felon. He's made some mistakes and paid for them but he's not dangerous or evil, and he just wants to live his life (despite all the hurdles that are in the way every time he applies for a job or tries to get anything else done.) That Governor Huckabee had the decency when he was Governor to recognize that there was some hope for those felons who had been cleared by the pardons board (and knowing that he was putting his political career at some risk but taking it anyway) is commendable and should be applauded.

I wrote several years ago about the tough life that people have when they leave prison anyway (the prison that follows prison.) It's almost like we want them to fail. This isn't about revenge or about wanting to save a few dollars on rehab or job placement programs. It's about what we can do to prevent the return to prison by people who could be doing something with their lives besides eating food and sleeping in guarded institutions (very expensive guarded institutions) that the rest of us pay for.

Clearly in the case of Maurice Clemmons, Mike Huckabee turned out to be wrong. But it was no mistake to (in the broader scheme) be willing to take seriously his role as arbiter of these kinds of decisions and make the best decision he could, even knowing that it could hurt his political career someday.


Finnster said...

Hey, knucklehead:

Clemmons was convicted of aggravated armed robbery in Arkansas. That means he stuck a gun in someone's face to rob them.

Huckabee was stupid to let someone like that go back out into society. It certainly calls into question whether he has the judgement to be president. Whose sentence would he commute and let out next? the Unabomber?

Finnster said...

And keep in mind that everyone who asks their sentence to be commuted has already been convicted. So it's not just a matter of making mistakes, it's about how bad those mistakes are. Even if you were right about 999 out of a thousand I'd rather have 999 convicts have to serve their whole sentence than have one do what this murdering loser did.

Eli Blake said...


Try to follow this and I will try to rebut you logically.

First, I understand your point that this was such a terrible crime that it is all out of proportion to keeping someone in longer when they would be OK if they got out. I'm sure most people would agree with you. However at some point you have to draw a balance between the demands of justice and the costs of justice. There was after all, very little crime in the Soviet Union because if anyone committed a crime, they were simply packed off to the Gulag, probably for the rest of their (from that time forward) unnatural lives. In Islamic countries they have sharia law and very little crime, but we'd all agree that cutting off a child's hand for stealing candy is too harsh a punishment.

In the U.S. we have a much more lenient system full of checks and balances (some of which I will even concede do favor the accused to a degree that many people get frustrated with the pace of justice.)

However as I said, why even have a provision for sentence commutation if you don't use it? Further, the provision and its use can be defended by the fact that most people who are in prison will, whether we like it or not, eventually get out anyway.

So we have to ask ourselves what kind of person do we want getting out of prison?

Do we want someone who still only knows how to commit crimes, or do we want someone who has taken advantage of the resources that are available to learn how to earn a living doing something else?

Presumably the latter. And if so then how do we incentivize prisoners to use those resources? After all crime is always an option and for many people it is an attractive option (I know a guy who was earning seven bucks an hour at a Circle K, and he told me 'if I wanted to get rich I'd still be in drugs.' Well, he's actually one of the most honest guys I know.)

Getting out early is an incentive. Traditionally this has involved 'good behavior,' i.e. if a prisoner doesn't start a riot, beat up the other prisoners or cause trouble for the guards they get time off. However this doesn't equate to actually doing anything to better themselves so 'good time' has been limited in many places.

So the idea of a commutation is that someone (presumably the Governor) can look and see if a person has not only been a good prisoner, but also if they have prepared themselves (say, earning a certificate in prison) to be able to contribute honestly outside of prison. Even then, the board that makes those recommendations will look at their temperment, likely interview them and of course how long their history is and what's in it.

In the end it is a judgement call. But if you never give anyone an incentive to make themselves better, then the vast majority of prisoners won't make themselves better and will go back to crime. Recidivism has always been and will always be a problem but we have an obligation as a society to try to keep it as low as we can.

I also might add I went into a much more detailed discussion of recidivism in the post I linked to.

sandyh said...

I'm conflicted on this issue, Eli.

I'm all for early release for those who have demonstrated that they are ready to handle it. But I'm not for making releases for purely political reasons.

Huckabee was not approached by the family or the parole board to my knowledge. He was approached by fundie advocates who are recruiting blacks in prison to further their cause. For some reason Black Muslims scare the hell out of these Christian warriors.

That said, how does anyone know how a released criminal will act whether they have served their time or been paroled?

Huckabee will be judged by the very same fundies as soft on crime. You can't show any weakness or make any mistakes (unless it's adultery among C Street boarders) if you want to carry the conservative banner.

They have set up a witness test that nobody can live up to in the Republican Party. Huckabee can't win for losing with the conservative base. Besides, most of the Birthers were looking for a reason to dump him for Palin.
They now have it.

The Romney folks can't be too sorry to see it happen either. Forget all the dead cops. It's all about gaining and exerting power over others with the Right. There will be collateral damage furthering The Cause...even among their own.

This guy was obviously dangerous. It would have been helpful if Huckabee had looked for professional help instead of praying that he was making the right decision.

Eli Blake said...


I don't think anyone (at least not anyone since Barabbas) has ever been released for purely political reasons, the political risks are just too big. As you and I both mention, this is nothing but a big gift to Palin and Romney (and Obama if he gets that far.) The political benefit is tiny by comparison-- maybe the convict's relatives might vote for you.

I don't think this has anything to do with religion (and as I think I've mentioned, I happen to belong to the same church as Mitt Romney-- which means Mike Huckabee believes I'm going to hell, BTW.)

The board that makes these recommendations made the recommendation to Governor Huckabee that Mr. Clemmons receive a sentence commutation. That was not based on religion, it was a judgement call.

I've had plenty of bones to pick with Mike Huckabee, but I don't have one to pick with him taking his job to review these cases seriously (in contrast to most Governors of either party.) And as for having a little compassion, what is wrong with that in an elected official anyway? There was a time when it was something to be admired.

And gosh, with all due respect, complaining about 'fundies' does us no favors, I mean if you think people are intolerant then how do you make your case by sounding intolerant, especially in a case where someone is being blasted basically for showing some tolerance.

sandyh said...

I suppose you have never received a chain e-mail from fundie relatives implying that blacks need to be "saved". This release had a lot more to do with religious politics than you realize.

I'm not being intolerant. I'm just letting you in on the secret as those of your faith have been left out-of-the-loop so to speak. The Religious Right is all about politics.

They used to call themselves John Birthers or Confederates. Now they are hiding their racism behind Jesus. The fundies have been concentrated their efforts behind bars for the past few decades hoping to convert and engage the support of those they scorn.

They actually were quite successful during the 2004 election. Black evangelicals fell right in line against gays. They quickly realized their mistake when the 700 Club crowd and conservative think tanks turned on the Rev. Wright and tried to use him to destroy Obama's candidacy.

This prison release was highly political...in what they consider a religious sense. There isn't anything a Southern conservative politician won't do to develop their power base. I come from a border state and live with their manipulations every election.

Huckabee let his ambition overtake his judgment in this case hoping for a payoff among both blacks and white down the road. Don't think it was a matter of justice. Southern conservatives never do anything for blacks except keep them in their place.

Huckabee would never of considered this man's place anywhere but under the white man's thumb.