In his latest New York Times column, Ross Douthat explains the lesson politicians can take from the tragic shooting of four police officers in Washington State:
If you’re a governor with presidential aspirations, you should never, under any circumstances, pardon a convict or reduce a sentence. That’s the lesson everyone seems to have drawn from the dreadful case of Maurice Clemmons, an Arkansas native who murdered four Lakewood, Wash., police officers over Thanksgiving weekend — nine years after Mike Huckabee, then governor, commuted his sentence and the Arkansas parole board set him free.
Indeed, I was one of those who made this very claim. Ross quoting my blog post on Huckabee in which I said, “the “prudent tactic would have been to simply refuse to grant any leniency — ever.” While this quote is accurate, it might give the impression that I condone such action. As I added after that part,
Other governors with their sights set on higher offices had learned that doing nothing—even to correct obvious instances of injustice—was unlikely to cause any long-term political damage. Keeping an innocent man in prison is less harmful to an ambitious politician than freeing someone who may commit other crimes.
A prime example is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who refused to pardon a decorated Iraq War veteran for a crime he had committed as a child. The veteran needed a gun permit in Massachusetts to get a promotion at his security guard job and to pursue a possible career as a police officer. As Gov. Huckabee said during the 2008 primaries, Romney chose to deny a deserving veteran a chance to improve his life just because “he wanted to brag that he never, ever gave out a pardon” when he ran for president.
This preference for bragging rights over justice, however, has broad implications for both individuals and society. It is shocking and shameful that governors will admit to shirking their duties and prejudging all cases before ever examining them to see if an injustice needs to be rectified; it is even more shocking and shameful that we let them get away with it. Unfortunately, this incident will confirm for many politicians that political cowardice is not only the best option, but the one preferred by the public. As Ross says, the Maurice Clemmons case is likely to “cast a long shadow over conservative politics, frightening politicians away from even the most sensible reforms — lest they wake up to a tragedy, and find themselves assigned the blame.”
Fortunately, not all politicians are choosing to put the safety and concerns of the public ahead of their own electoral prospects. As an article in The American Prospect notes, the types of reforms that Ross mentions in his column already being championed in some states:
In the 1980s and 1990s — the “tough on crime” era — incarceration was touted as the simple solution to our crime problem. Today, the United States imprisons 1 percent of its entire population. Including the number of people on probation and parole, one in 31 Americans is under supervision of the criminal-justice system. Mass incarceration has succeeded in reducing crime, but the strategy has diminishing returns. The offense rate of the top 20 percent of offenders is more than 10 times that of the average prisoner — a few very active criminals commit most of the crime. But under the current system, offenders who could be more cheaply deterred or rehabilitated instead incur the most expensive — and, from the perspective of its effect on the community, damaging — form of punishment possible. This is why, even as the number of incarcerated people has increased exponentially, crime hasn’t decreased at the same rate.
Fueled by the damage mass incarceration has done to state budgets, a new “smart on crime” movement has emerged to seek new ways of reducing the number of people in the system.
These are the types of reforms that should be led by conservatives. Yet instead we settle for empty sympolic gestures (e.g., executing criminals) that give the impression we are “tough on crime” while ceding real crime-reduction policy solutions to the liberals. No wonder we have presidential candidates choosing injustice when we’ve signaled that we prefer a charicature of “law and order” to the real thing.