I’m not a big fan of standing up for Mike Huckabee, but…

His clemency of Maurice Clemmons, who is believed to have shot and killed four police officers, should not be an issue. Clemons was sent to jail at 16, sentenced for more than 100 years for burglary and robbery. Huckabee commuted his sentence, and made him eligible for parole. A parole board evaluated the circumstances of the case and paroled him.

In a criminal justice system as vast and over-reaching as ours, it can be nearly impossible to determine who will commit crimes again and who will not. Obviously certain factors play a role in both estimating the probability of reoffense and in determining who should serve longer sentences — the violence involved in the underlying crime, the convicted person’s ties with criminal activity outside of prison, the person’s behavior while inside — but it’s not a perfect calculus. Forcing someone to serve a full prison term also doesn’t guarantee that they will never reoffend.

Huckabee’s decision to commute Clemmons’ sentence was not what killed those police officers. Governors should be able to check an over-zealous justice system in situations like this one, where a minor was sentenced to a century behind bars for an offense that, as far as I can tell, included no physical harm to other people. It turns out that Clemmons was actually a horrible man, and I’m not trying to downplay his evil actions after prison. But it’s important to keep in mind that this series of events is the exception rather than the rule. And as much as I love to criticize Huckabee, this one isn’t on his shoulders.

Also, what Josh said. The commutation file is worth a read.

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37 comments for “I’m not a big fan of standing up for Mike Huckabee, but…

  1. smmo
    December 1, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Agreed, and well said.

    But, and to state the obvious, if this was a Democratic governor, Faux News would be excoriating him every minute of every day. The hypocrisy of that grates and if Huckabee’s political career is hurt because of it, I’ll consider it revenge for Willie Horton.

  2. Andrea
    December 1, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Maybe his status as a “horrible man” can be partially attributed to being thrown in jail for 100 years at 16 years old! Maybe if our penal system were half as interested in rehabilitation as it is in retribution those police officers would still be alive.

  3. December 1, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Jill, totally. We already have an insanely punitive criminal justice system that work the wrong way in almost every respect: guarding the powerful and punishing the disenfranchised, punishing drug offenses harshly while barely touching sexual assault and intimate partner violence, and acting as a method of protecting an entrenched social order — folks that say this is its purpose are not, IMO, far wrong, since it generally functions that way.

    To reduce even further the underused tools that mitigate the system’s worst unfairnesses is a shame.

  4. Vail
    December 1, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    But what I find interesting is how Clemons mentioned that he was raised by a Christian family etc etc and I wonder how much that influenced Huckabee.

  5. melancholia
    December 1, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I’m going to dissent on this one.

    I’m all for reforming our prison system, addressing root causes, and decriminalizing drugs. But a 16 year old who robs somebody at gunpoint is a dangerous, violent person. I suspect most people who read this blog have not encountered serious violence, and have trouble comprehending how brutal some criminals really are. And there really is no difference if they’re 16 or 30; in fact teenage to early 20s men are usually the worst offenders, in my experience.

    I guess my question is: what would you all do differently when dealing with violent criminals? How would we rehabilitate a 16 year old young man to the point we would trust him to have his freedom? Should we medicate him? Lobotomize him? Release him bit force him to attend daily therapy?

  6. jemand
    December 1, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    @Vail, exactly. I think the legitimate anger I’ve seen about this was not the fact that Huckabee pardoned him, but that he did so *because they shared religious beliefs.*

    There were other 16 year olds thrown in jail for long sentences in Arkansas too, I’m certain, but just because this *one* picked the “right” religious beliefs he struck a chord with his governor and was released.

  7. Beth
    December 1, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Thank you Jill. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so sad for all the young people locked up who will now suffer the tightening of rules because of the exception, not the rule. Putting teenagers in prison for life- Their Entire Life- is cruel, unusual, and expensive. Thank you Jill. As soon as I think that I could not love this site any more than I already do….

  8. Wehaf
    December 1, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    I agree with Vail and jemand – the problem is that Huckabee allowed the fact that Clemmons professed to be a born-again Christian to cloud his judgement, and to weigh more heavily than the objections of prosecutors and jail officials who reported that Clemmons was a violent and disruptive inmate. If Huckabee had granted clemency based on objective criteria instead of being swayed by protestations of faith (from an insane man, who deserved mental care, not to be released without any help) this would never have happened. It did, and the fault lies partially with Huckabee.

    P.Z. has more: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/12/mike_huckabee_killed_maurice_c.php

    As does Hullabaloo, which details an even more egregious pardon by Huckabee (one that, fortunately, was reversed due to public outcry): http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/huckabees-christ-delusion-by-tristero.html

  9. kiki
    December 1, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Clemmency is a good thing when used with sound judgement. That is not what happened with Maurice Clemmons. He was pardoned because he professed strong christian belief. If he had claimed any other religion or *gasp* atheism he would still be rotting in prison today. Huckabee abused his power and should be called out for it.

  10. Cass
    December 1, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    This topic makes me so sad and I don’t know what position I hold in regards to it. My first, knee-jerk reaction was ‘again?!” When he made his run for president, didn’t he have to defend himself against this same sort of thing in regards to Wayne Dumond?

    No, we shouldn’t bash governers because they can’t predict the future and don’t know. But, at the same time…I don’t even know what to say. The whole situation saddens me.

  11. FashionablyEvil
    December 1, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    I third Vail and jemand. More from Salon on how religion appears to have influenced Huckabee’s clemency decisions.

    • December 1, 2009 at 8:29 pm

      I agree it’s effed up that Huckabee focused on his religion for a reason to grant clemency. But that isn’t what I’ve seen pointed to in most media. Instead, I’ve just seened this framed as his “Willie Horton” moment. And… that’s dangerous.

  12. December 1, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    @melancholia: ‘Lobotomize him?’ What an astoundingly inappropriate thing to say.

  13. Wehaf
    December 1, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    “Instead, I’ve just seened this framed as his “Willie Horton” moment. And… that’s dangerous.”

    That’s perhaps true, but unrelated to what you wrote in the original post: “But it’s important to keep in mind that this series of events is the exception rather than the rule. And as much as I love to criticize Huckabee, this one isn’t on his shoulders.”

    This is on Huckabee’s shoulders, and this type of pardon/clemency is the rule for Huckabee, as amply demonstrated in the many links given by commenters, myself and others, above.

    • December 1, 2009 at 9:37 pm

      But is your (and others’, melancholia aside) point that Clemmons shouldn’t have been granted clemency, or that he should have been granted clemency but it’s bad that Huckabee granted it on the basis of his religious belief? I assumed it was the latter, and that the bigger point was that more people should have their sentences commuted. If your point was that Clemmons should have served his full sentence and religion aside it was a mistake for Huckabee to grant clemency, then I’m not sure I agree.

  14. Wehaf
    December 1, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    “If your point was that Clemmons should have served his full sentence and religion aside it was a mistake for Huckabee to grant clemency, then I’m not sure I agree.”

    Really? I mean, there is plenty of room for discussions about reasonable vs. unreasonable sentences, especially for minors. But Clemmons should not have been granted clemency (nor should Wayne Dumond have been), because it was clear from his behavior in prison that he was mentally ill, violent, disruptive, and likely to immediately reoffend. Which he did. The only reason he was released was because Huckabee thought that it was okay to ignore all the evidence and rely on insincere professions of faith. Huckabee did this in several cases, numerous ones of which have gone badly. Which means that your statement in the original post, “But it’s important to keep in mind that this series of events is the exception rather than the rule. And as much as I love to criticize Huckabee, this one isn’t on his shoulders.”, is clearly way off the mark.

    Further, it is important to note that while Clemmons’ sentence was quite long, he could have been released on parole as early as 2021, so it is not as if he had an effective life sentence without parole.

    • December 1, 2009 at 10:03 pm

      Really? I mean, there is plenty of room for discussions about reasonable vs. unreasonable sentences, especially for minors. But Clemmons should not have been granted clemency (nor should Wayne Dumond have been), because it was clear from his behavior in prison that he was mentally ill, violent, disruptive, and likely to immediately reoffend.

      Well, except that there are multiple levels of oversight on these things. Huckabee granted him clemency and made him eligible for parole; a parole board ostensibly looked into the facts and deemed him worthy of release. It’s not like Huckabee just waived a magic wand here.

  15. jemand
    December 1, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    @Jill, I believe it was the later, but that he should have been seen as need of therapy and other help. Not as “cured” because he shared the “proper” religious belief. And if he had been properly monitored and mentored, this would not be an issue.

    All of that not happening is on Huckabee’s shoulders.

    I don’t know if I would say more people should have there sentences commuted, technically *true* but I’d rather sidestep that particular question and say the entire system needs to be reformed. Pardons are *supposed* to only be exceptions the system *can’t* deal with. Not routine.

  16. Wehaf
    December 1, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    “It’s not like Huckabee just waived a magic wand here.”

    True. There were other failures in the system. That doesn’t mean that Huckabee’s failure was not critical, avoidable, tragic, and worthy of serious criticism of both motives and effects.

    • December 1, 2009 at 10:16 pm

      It’s also worth reading through the commutation file that I just linked in the post.

  17. southpaw
    December 1, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Sorry, I have to disagree.

    Let me just quote the 1990 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report that TPM refers to here:

    Circuit Court Judge Floyd Lofton decided Thursday not to hear further charges against an 18- year-old Little Rock youth already serving 108 years in prison.

    Maurice Clemmons of 2808 Welch St., while in the courthouse for previous appearances in Lofton’s court, tried to throw a padlock at Lofton’s bailiff and hid a piece of metal that could have been used as a weapon in his sock.

    Clemmons still faces charges of robbery, theft of property and possession of a handgun on school property that could result in up to 95 years more in prison.

    Thursday, Lofton agreed with Clemmons’ assertion that he might be prejudiced by Clemmons’ prior actions and transferred the case to Circuit Judge Perry Whitmore on the condition that Clemmons waive his right to a speedy trial. Lofton thought the paperwork for the transfer might delay the trial past the one-year speedy trial limit, said Deputy Prosecutor Mark Fraiser.

    Maurice Clemmons was already serving 108 years in prison and he was facing charges that could have tacked on 95 years more had the judge not declined to hear them. That’s presumably indicative of multiple counts of aggravated violent crimes. And while charged with these offenses, Clemmons assaulted a bailiff with a padlock and then secreted a second metal weapon into the courtroom.

    Without taking anything away from the general point that we imprison too many people in this country on grossly overlong sentences, I think we need to reckon with the reality of Maurice Clemmons the individual here. I’d be willing to say that someone who is as young as Maurice Clemmons and who is serving a sentence that long should always be seriously considered for clemency with a bias in favor of granting it. But, from all the reports I’ve seen, Maurice Clemmons himself was quite obviously a violent sociopath who presented a clear danger to the community and he should not have been released unless it was clear he had been significantly rehabilitated.

  18. William
    December 2, 2009 at 9:35 am

    I take your point, Jill, but can we all at least agree that we’re happy something is likely to torpedo Huckabee’s continued presence in national politics?

  19. December 2, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Thank you for this (and the links). Just a couple hours ago, I was trying to get a tutoring student who chose an article about this case to think about these wider issues of imprisonment at a young age and the US justice system. I may bring in this very commentary next week.

  20. evil_fizz
    December 2, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Upfront disclaimer: as someone who lives about 20 minutes from these shootings (and works even closer), it’s hard for me to have much perspective on this case. I didn’t know any of these cops personally, but I’ve seen their names cross my desk. (I work in criminal law.)

    I don’t think that such long sentences are appropriate for juveniles because I do believe that differences in maturity,
    cognitive development, and impulse control are material to how we think about criminal culpability. However, I’m in no way convinced (and I can’t read the commutation file for some reason) that Clemmons should have been released.

    Our prison system is appalling when it comes to dealing with issues of rehabilitation and mental health, and while I doubt that good resources would even have been available to address this situation, alternatives to release should really have been explored better.

    And of course, let’s not overlook the fact that Clemmons was never supposed to be eligible for bail to begin with and was out on $150,000 bond at the time of the shootings.

  21. Anonymouse
    December 2, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I’m with the dissenters on this one.

    From what I have read, Huckabee’s pattern of granting pardons to violent offenders on the basis of pastors’ recommendations does not seem like a check on an over-zealous justice system. It seems like terrible judgment and privileging religious inclinations over the recommendations of parole boards and prosecutors and certainly over decisions made by juries in courts of law. I don’t doubt that there are many cases in which the criminal justice system overreaches or is unfair or is callous or cruel. I understand that Huckabee did not wave a magic wand and that there were multiple points of failure. Still, when a governor makes an unusual number of pardons of violent offenders on the basis of personal and religious belief, there’s a legitimate concern. When two of those pardoned and released then rape and murder people, you bet there’s an issue.

    One more point, I disagree that robbing someone at gunpoint involves “no physical harm to other people.” Threatening someone’s life and making someone fear for her life is a very violent act and sure as hell causes harm to the victim.

  22. Beth
    December 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Maybe it is not so black and white, let him free or lock him up for 100 years. I see the real issue being that CLEARLY the youth needed rehab, therapy, resources, help, and we either lock him up for the rest of his life or, we set him free. It was only after working with prisoners that I realized- this is their life. Their only life, as far as we know. He didn’t need to be let free, he didn’t need the 100 year sentence, he needed something that takes a bit more effort and shade of gray.

  23. BStu
    December 2, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    I have to agree. I don’t dispute that a 16 year old who commits armed robbery should be subject to a lengthy prison term, but life imprisonment just doesn’t seem at all justified. I don’t think his recent actions can be regarded as forseeable from that context. Huckabee’s commutation strikes me as compassionate and reasonable and speaks to one of the few reasons I like Huckabee in that he takes his Christianity seriously and doesn’t use his faith as guidance only when politically correct to do so.

    That said, what this SHOULD expose is the negative side of Huckabee’s religious seriousness. While its good that he gives more than lip service to compassion in his faith, there is a disturbing trend of Huckabee commuting sentences primarily on religious grounds and that deeply concerns. He can make the right decision for the wrong reasons, but that puts the onus on us to criticize him appropriately. He’s not being attacked in the media for allowing religious bias to taint the commutation process. He’s being attacked for commuting a sentence at all. What of all of the lives saved by his willingness to temper the excessive sentences so often doled out in the criminal justice system? The benefit of his actions would be impossible to quantify, but these kinds of attacks have a deeply chilling effect on Governors around the nation. Its safer for them to refuse this duty, but thats not okay. We shouldn’t be silent because we think he deserves to get attacked for something he isn’t being attacked for.

  24. Evrybdy44
    December 2, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    So wait. . . did he pardon the guy or did the parole board make the final decision?

  25. Evrybdy44
    December 2, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    So wait. . . did he pardon the guy or did the parole board make the final decision? These posts are confusing me. I though he didn’t pardon him.

  26. anonymous
    December 3, 2009 at 12:01 am

    i have to disagree with all of y’all on this. well not all of yall, i think that the granting of clemency was a just choice, but i disagree with the condemnation of a man who has not been proven guilty yet. (the article said he is merely suspected, and due to the media hype, no jury could be fair, so even a guilty verdict doesn’t point to the truth.)

    I disagree with the general premise and assumptions of this conversation. Not just Clemmons, but ALL prisoners deserve to be released for the simple reason that prison, in the most rudimentary definitions of it, not to mention how the prison system in the U.S. operates, is in violation of human rights. (you may have some corrupted way of thinking of human rights, but just using the UN’s as a common denominator this assertion is true.) A human is still a human and deserves their universal human rights, no matter what they do.

    In regards to Clemmons’ violent outburst in court, being imprisoned is inherently violent against the victim, and do they not have the right to defend themself as all people have the right to defend themselves from violence. This overall case appears to be a series of erratic violent behavior (including alleged) but could actually more accurately be interpreted as an understandable (not necessarily moral), if not justified (which would be morally correct, because most people would agree that violence is justified in self-defense) action/s towards the prison and criminal justice systems which was actively doing violence against him by exerting power, force, and physical violence over him.
    I’m not necessarily trying to condone his alleged actions in regards to the four cops, but this is a far more complex and deeper philosophical issue than just ‘evil kid kills cops after being released by Huckabee’.

  27. anonymous
    December 3, 2009 at 12:03 am

    clarification of my first sentence: it’s unfair to grant clemency based on religious affiliation (duh), but all grants of clemency are just because it can lead to a prisoner’s release.

  28. anonymous
    December 3, 2009 at 12:23 am

    one more clarification, i’m not the same person as anonymouse, that could be confusing because we say totally different things.

  29. human
    December 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    @Evrybdy44: He was not parole eligible due to the terms of his sentence. The governor commuted his sentence making him parole eligible. All this action did was make him eligible for parole, not take time off his sentence or actually grant him parole. The parole board then granted him parole.

    That is my understanding from reading the file Jill links to. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

  30. William
    December 3, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I see the real issue being that CLEARLY the youth needed rehab, therapy, resources, help,

    You know, we throw the idea of therapy and “help” around a lot but I don’t think most people have the faintest idea what they’re talking about. As a therapist I can say that its tough to make progress even with motivated people, people who are there because they are being forced to show up don’t “get better” (whatever the hell that means). Perhaps more importantly, psychotherapy doesn’t exist to fix people who are disturbing to society. Thats an ugly, repugnant, unethical use of therapy. I’m all for getting people services they need, but they have to want them for them to be justifiable. Otherwise therapists are no better than doctors who perform forceable sterilization, police who threaten prison rape to cow a suspect, or guards who strip what little dignity prisoners have in order to enforce submission.

  31. Beth
    December 4, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    William, who is to say they don’t want them? Don’t tell me I don’t have the faintest idea what I am talking about, I work with prisoners who time and time again tell me how they want resources, they want rehab, they sure as hell want to leave and not come back. Before you tell me they’re lying- perhaps some are, but the fact is the RESOURCES ARE NOT THERE and then we’re surprised! Shocked! Appalled! When recidivism occurs. Insanity is repeating the same behavior twice expecting a different result. Without rehab, without change, without the offer of hope, how can any of us be surprised when prisoners leave prison worse off- with stigma, hardened, beaten-down, and re-enter the same situations? Prison has proven time and time again to not be an effective tool to prevent crime. I can’t believe you’re assuming ALL prisoners don’t want help.

  32. William
    December 4, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    William, who is to say they don’t want them?

    No one. Thats part of why I said “I’m all for getting people the services they need.” My problem isn’t with offering, and providing, services to people who want them (even prisoners). My problem is with the idea that somehow therapy is a magical cure which can be foisted upon people who do not want it or marshaled to control behaviors society dislikes. I am sure that there are many prisoners who would want therapy, and they ought to be able to get it, but any therapy needs to be both voluntary and defined by the client. When I hear people talk about what someone else needs I tend to get suspicious. Too often the good intentions of good people lead to vulnerable people getting fucked. Therapy is oftentimes used as a convenient tool in that pursuit.

    Also, not to get too far off topic, rehabilitation in jail isn’t really the problem. Its a symptom. Putting kids in jail for a century is a problem. Creating a situation in which that would be imaginable is a problem. Locking someone up for a decade because they smoked some pot is a problem. Crippling poverty and a lack of hope on the outside is a problem. Prison is really just the end result of a system designed to shuffle around inconvenient people; no amount of therapy is going to undo a society designed to victimize.

  33. Beth
    December 6, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Well, I believe this is the point in a debate in which two people realize they are essentially arguing the same point. I agree with everything you wrote last, perhaps it was the connotation that I look and ran with. I especially agree with that prison, in general and in theory, is the issue.

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