There’s been a great uproar lately about former Mississippi governor Gov. Haley Barbour’s recent pardon of nearly 200 state convicts. State Attorney General Jim Hood called it “a slap in the face to everyone in law enforcement.” On Wednesday evening a judge issued an injunction against the release of any more prisoners under Barbour’s pardons, suggesting that he’d violated the Mississippi Constitution’s rules for the release of inmates.
But surely this misses the point.
Sure, 14 of the nearly 200 were convicted murders. Of these, four served in the Governor’s Mansion under the Mississippi Department of Correction’s “trusty” program, where long-sentence prisoners who have built up good time get to earn credit for performing special jobs.
Clearly, these men have suffered enough.
Time in prison is one thing. Time on road crews and kitchen duty is another. But having to work in a historic home — first occupied in 1842, making it the “second-oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the United States” according to the mansion Web site — that’s entirely different!
How can we ask any more of these men? Look, murder is a horrible crime, but if you’ve ever had to serve at a historic home, where “the majority of furniture and furnishings . . . are Empire style pieces . . . derived from classical motifs brought back into style at the turn of the nineteenth century,” surely you’ve done all that society requests.
One of these men shot his estranged wife in the head while she held her 6-month-old baby, CNN reports.
But hey, he handled himself well around all that expensive furniture. (“Typical Empire Motifs include the acanthus leaf (leaf of a Mediterranean shrub), anthemion (stylized honeysuckle), animal-paw feet, cornucopia (horn of plenty), dolphin, eagle, lyre and rosette.”) And the thing about crimes of passion is that they so seldom happen twice.
Sure, he was supposed to be serving life in prison, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that life in prison comes anywhere near to the pain of having to work near period furniture, which you are very seldom allowed to sit on, in a house where there are docents everywhere providing historical interpretation. Society should have released these men aeons ago, with our thanks. Have you toured a historic residence lately? They’ve suffered enough.
Besides, this is a Mississippi tradition! There’s law, and there’s releasing convicted murderers who have yet to finish paying their debt to society — but come on, it’s tradition.
Some would argue that just because a Mississippi governor did something in the past — Governor Ross Barnett was a member of the Citizens’ Council movement, and Governor John J. Pettus actually seceded, for crying out loud — is not a reason to keep doing it, but they evidently don’t know how hard the Governor’s Mansion trusties have to work to avoid running into those docents giving tours.
The defense of Barbour, whose term ended this month, has mainly consisted of two ideas — first, this is a Mississippi gubernatorial tradition, and second, he has no plans to run for president. I understand that in this political environment, it is difficult to quell rumors that you might possibly still maybe want to run for president, and you have to resort to extreme measures. But this seems a little too extreme. Just because you don’t intend to run for president doesn’t mean you can do anything. I don’t intend to run for president, and you don’t see me running around commuting the sentences of convicted murderers right and left.
Now Barbour has started making another argument — of the 215, 189 were already out of prison, 90 percent of his pardons agreed with the recommendations of the parole board, and 13 of those still in prison were costing the state exorbitant amounts of money to keep incarcerated. But it may well be too late.
There’s a whole, separate, and worthwhile discussion to be had about the prison system. It might be good if these pardons kicked it off. Whom do long sentences serve — the families of victims? Society? Both? Neither? In 2008, we had more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners — but only 5 percent of the world’s population. Overcrowding is rampant, basic rules to protect the few remaining rights of convicts have yet to be implemented, and there are plenty of good, legitimate reasons to look at the prison population and say, “This is not humane, it’s costing lots of money, and it may not be doing much to decrease recidivism.”
But there’s that discussion, and then there’s Mississippi tradition. And those Empire chairs.