Three Cheers for Pardons

As you may have noticed, out-going Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) is catching some flak today for a couple hundred pardons he gave on his last day in office. Many of the pardoned convicts were found guilty of brutal crimes, including murder. And the picture is complicated by the fact that a number of the recipients were part of a program where certain good-behaving and long-serving convicts served as servants in the governor’s mansion and thus got to know Barbour or his staff.

But let me put a stake in the ground on this one and say that I think pardons get a bad rap and that there should be more pardons.In fact, at the federal level, the pardon power has become pretty much a joke. Besides the ‘scandalous’ pardons we’ve had over the years, if you look at the list of the pardons presidents give out these days they’re almost always pardons for some guy who got caught selling moonshine thirty years ago and just wants his record wiped clean. Indeed, at the federal level pardons seldom ever actually get people out of the jail anymore. Under current guidelines, you’re supposed to wait until the convicts have actually done their time and then pardon them for their offense.

Indeed, this is why, in the case of Barbour’s pardons, a big chunk of the outrage is that a lot of the pardonees aren’t just folks who jay-walked 20 years ago. Some of them are murderers. These people committed real crimes. The relatives of the victims are pissed.

But I think this is all wrong. The pardon power can obviously be abused. Certainly that’s the case if money gets added to the mix. But I’d like to see a much more robust use of pardons. Indeed, earlier in our history, it was much more widely used.

The justice system is famously blind. And that’s not including the times that it outright lies. Even setting aside people who are in jails today who are actually innocent, there are also people in prison who really did commit the crimes and maybe their sentences were just. But the course of time has changed the scales and clemency is appropriate. Or what about people who clearly got railroaded but for whom there’s no narrowly legal remedy? Some people for any number of reasons just deserve a second chance. Sometimes clemency is necessary for wrongs that simple justice can’t remedy.

I’m obviously painting here with a broad brush. And I think there’s likely an argument that the untrammeled nature of executive pardon power is just hard for people to wholly accept in this day and age. But the current use of the pardon power has become so anemic and bloodless and worthless that I think much more of a positive argument needs to be made for this power.