The quality of (Huckabee’s) mercy

His extension of clemency to someone who became a multiple cop-killer is going to cost him politically. But, unlike the Dumond pardon, that decision was justifiable; all it did was reduce a sentence of 108 years given to a sixteen-year-old for crimes none of which involved a weapon.

I’m not sure it’s technically possible to chortle via email, but a number of my friends and readers gave it a serious try over Mike Huckabee’s extension of clemency to a man who now, many years later, killed four police officers.

My reaction was that I wouldn’t criticize Huckabee over this unless more facts emerged suggesting that Huckabee’s action had been improperly motivated, or imprudent given the information available at the time. As I wrote in response to one email, “Absent any evidence of improper reasons (as in Huckabee’s other famous pardon) I don’t see any reason to hit him for it. You let people out, some do bad things. Goes with the territory.”

I haven’t seen all the documents, but as far as I can tell there were no improper reasons.  Huckabee thought that a 16-year-old sentenced to 108 years for  crime not involving a weapon had gotten sort of a tough break, and decided to give him a second chance.  Maybe his prison disciplinary record was bad enough that it should have been a red flag, but that judgement was for the parole board to make.  Huckabee, as governor, had perfectly adequate grounds for cutting back on the original sentence, and that’s what he did.

Later, when Clemmons had accumulated a much nastier record, various officials both in Arkansas and in Washington State made what seem to have been much less forgiveable miscues.

Huckabee as governor was an active and rather unselective user of the clemency power; by one count, Huckabee issued twice as many clemency grants as his three predecessors combined. His willingness to employ mercy reflected his Christianity – he’s a former pastor – in two ways, one (in my view) creditable to him, other not. The discreditable version is that he seemed to be over-influenced by his ministerial brethren, and too willing to listen to offenders who claimed to have found Jesus in prison (as Clemmons did).

The creditable version is that Huckabee, unlike many of his friends in the movement to politicize fundamentalist Protestantism, seems to have actually read the Bible. If every human being is the likeness and image of God, then keeping one of them caged up like an animal (or torturing one of them) is a kind of blasphemy.

As to forgiveness. R. Yeshua couldn’t have made himself any clearer (Matt. 18:21-35):

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

Of course, there’s a difference between forgiving someone who wronged you and forgiving someone who wronged someone else, and the public system of retribution for crime is part of what keeps civilization going.

But there’s also the incident of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11), which I would have thought to make capital punishment off-limits to anyone calling himself Christian.  In that passage, Jesus uses argument rather than his personal authority; by contrast with other passages, he never says “Your sins are forgiven.”  I would have thought that the logical force of  “Let whoever among you is without sin cast the first stone” applied obviously  to every judge, governor, and executioner.    And does it apply with much less force to putting someone in prison for 108 years for a crime committed when he was 16?

In this regard, I think Christianity has something to teach secularism.   People who commit crimes are human beings, not wild animals or defective machines, and the natural impulse to hit back needs to be restrained.

It’s ironic that Huckabee’s Christianity may get in the way of his Christianist political project, but it’s not an irony I especially treasure.   I regard him as by far the most dangerous politician in America today; unlike, for example, Sarah Palin or Lou Dobbs, he might actually become President, and though he seems to be a more decent person than, e.g., Bush the Lesser or Dick Cheney, his ideas are frighteningly disconnected from reality.   So if this flap indeed makes it impossible for Huckabee to be nominated for President, the country is the safer for it.   But in my mental file it goes under “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”  And I hate to think of all the people who will rot in prison because no governor wants to share the fate of a Dukakis or a Huckabee.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “The quality of (Huckabee’s) mercy”

  1. I thought of your book when reading the popular response to this little tidbit. While it may be nice for liberals if Huckabee's political position is harmed, any highly publicized clemency error that leaves people calling for us to get tougher on crime in general seems like a bad deal for anyone who wants to reform the criminal justice system. I mean "error" here in the sense that in hindsight, this particular person was worth the incapacitation resources, not in the sense that the choice to grant clemency was wrong ex-ante.

  2. In the great pantheon of the conservative, anti-lifers, Huckabee is one I've always been able to stand snd even respect, exactly because of his intrinsic humanity which seems to be lacking in so much of what passes for the "conservative right" these days. We all have our limits though. I can vote for anti-choice, pro-war, anti tax but pro-deficit on war (I live in Nebraska, where Ben Nelson, Cro-Magnon though he is, is Steven Hawkings compared to Mike Johanns) but know this – I will NEVER be able to vote for a Creationist.

  3. The real issue shouldn't be Clemmons, who eventually turned out to be a truly awful monster and who probably should have been institutionalized for other reasons during the years between his release and his recent atrocity and who maybe shouldn't have been paroled given his behavior in prison — but who also probably should never have received the sentence he did for those crimes, committed as a teenager.

    The real issue should be Wayne Dumond. A much more clear case of Huckabee obsessed with his power to commute sentences, and with his political future and possible sponsors. Unlike Clemmons, where there were issues about the justice of sentencing a 16-year-old who'd never killed anyone to a century in prison, there were no plausible problems with Dumond's sentence. Dumond was in prison for worse crimes than Clemmons, crimes committed as an adult, the campaign to secure his commutation was transparently fraudulent and political (linked to the fact that one of Dumond's victims was distantly related to Bill Clinton, which apparently meant that her suffering shouldn't have counted). How Dumond hasn't been more of an albatross for Huckabee I'll never know.

  4. Barabara at the Mahablog draws attention to the story of Frankie Parker. He murdered his former inlaws, held his ex-wife hostage and injured her and a policeman. In jail he converted to Buddhism. He became a model prisoner for the last seven years of his life. He was seeking only a commutation from the death sentence to life imprisonment. Huckabee moved his execution from 17 September to 8 August 1996.

    I too am concerned about the people who will suffer indefinitely because governors wish to avoid the fate of Dukakis or Huckabee.

    I wonder if the eagerness Huckabee exhibited in moving up Parker's execution, the fact that Parker had reformed as a Buddhist and the fact that he had shown through seven years of action that he was reformed affect your opinion of Huckabee's record on Christian (or Christian only) forgiveness?

  5. It is not an argument against clemency, per se, that it is sometimes wasted on a recidivist. The real issue should be how to fix a system that metes out penalties that are so severe and indiscriminate that governors feel compelled to temper what appear to be ill-focused efforts to be harsh for the sake of being harsh. Maybe Clemmons was mentally ill or was, at some point, amenable to real social service intervention. Arkansas couldn't be bothered.

    The real crime here is the attitude that Christian forgiveness is an adequate substitute for rational law enforcement, treatment, and rehabilitation policies. On that score, Huckabee is guilty as charged.

  6. I agree with the above comments. However it must be said that much of the implied controversy surrounding Huckabee in this case has to do with people simply being stupid. And I mean that in the most literal sense.

    Like Kleiman wrote, you let people out and bad things happen. It's one of the little drawbacks to having a civilized justice system – where every infraction is not punishable by death or a life-sentence. Any legitimacy to the story rests squarely on whether the determination was prudent based on the facts of the case.

    It's this sort of stupidly black-and-white thinking that drives so much of the criminal justice debate. It's knee-jerk, and relies on a fantasy that a perfect justice system is possible.

  7. "In this regard, I think Christianity has something to teach secularism."

    Mark, this is an unfair statement that is beneath you. I think history will show that from the time of the Enlightenment onward it has been the secular world every bit as much as, or more than, the Christian world that has pushed ideas of humane punishment, better treatment of animals, prevention of torture, etc etc.

  8. In defense of Maynard: Importing Christian forgiveness into government policy is wrong. It is likely to be personal, quixotic, motivated by factors that implicate elements of unfairness and, yes, privilege. For individuals, forgiveness is usually right. For governments, it is not except in a few circumstances, for instance, where it is intended to level an otherwise demonstrably unfair outcome — where, for instance, someone was sentenced to lenthgy imprisonment for an offense that was later decriminalized, or where the sentence was much too long compared to that meted out to similarly situated offenders, or where it is obvious that the individual really was not guilty but it would extremely difficult to reopen a matter to reverse a conviction through the courts. Clemmons might have been an example of this kind of unfairness.

    The goal of secular government is to impart rationality into sentencing so that a governor can have confidence that mercy is almost never required to make the system fair.

  9. "Christian forgiveness", regardless of whether it's historically accurate, often seems to be applied only to benefit notably Christian inmates, not atheists or others, and it's abused by pastors.

  10. As to forgiveness, I'm with Heine, quoted by Freud in Civ&Discontents: “A great imaginative writer may permit himself to give expression — jokingly, at all events — to psychological truths that are severely proscribed. Thus Heine confesses: ‘Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.’”

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