The not-so fine art of forgiveness

Posted: Aug 01, 2006 12:01 AM
The not-so fine art of forgiveness

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has been in the news of late, because (a), the former Baptist minister is eying a run at the White House in the 2008 GOP primary and (b) he recently signed an order to pardon Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards for a 1975 reckless driving rap for which Richards pleaded guilty and paid a $162.50 fine.

The only reason he is doing it is "for the publicity," charged the mayor of the town where Richards and his entourage were stopped. Shameless self-promotion? Huckabee has a great response. If you played guitar as well as Keith Richards, he would pardon you, too, Huckabee told The Chronicle when he was in town Friday. The governor is clearly enjoying the notoriety -- especially because stories report the fact that he plays bass for his own rock band. If I recall, another Arkansas guv used an instrument -- a saxophone -- to serenade the public on the road to the White House.

What Huckabee says about pardons certainly is music to my ears. Yes, he says, he will continue to issue pardons and commutations, "knowing full well that there's no political upside, zero."

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigated Huckabee's record in July 2004 and found that Huckabee had commuted 111 sentences for prisoners in his first eight years in office. That number far exceeds the total commutations from the three governors (including Clinton) who preceded Huckabee over 18 years. The paper also reported that former Govs. Winthrop Rockefeller and Orval Faubus issued more commutations than Huckabee -- and for smaller prison populations.

Zero upside? Note that President Bush has issued some 82 pardons. That's a measly sum considering that federal prisons house more than 10 times the number of inmates in Arkansas, that draconian federal sentencing practices can land nonviolent first-time low-level drug offenders behind bars for decades, and the paucity of sentences cut short by Dubya.

Both Huckabee and Bush have pardoned men and women who served their time and wanted a clean slate for their new lives. Think of a teenage check-kiter who served her time, repented and now wants to work as a nursing assistant. Huckabee asked, "Are we going to put a heel to her face for the rest of her life?" No, you grant her a pardon.

Huckabee beats Bush on commutations even though he knows, when you cut sentences to give people "a second chance," some will re-offend.

I liked that Huckabee rejects how people in politics these days "want to make the whole process robotic." They embrace policies that say, "no pardons to anyone," thus stripping the art and human element from governing.

I left that meeting planning to write a gushing French kiss of a column, but when I researched the issue, I found that the less you know about his record, the better Huckabee sounds.

Let me be clear. Huckabee is a brave and good politician when he commutes sentences for nonviolent offenders and pardons for ex-cons who have turned their lives around. It is even possible he was a paragon when he shortened the prison terms of some violent offenders.

Too bad Huckabee has commuted sentences for violent offenders -- without appearing to have done his homework. In 2004, Huckabee commuted the sentence of convicted murderer Denver Witham -- after Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Herzfeld revealed that Witham had omitted some of his convictions on his clemency application. (Also, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported, the former Saline County sheriff testified that he had been threatened on Witham's behalf.) No governor should pardon a murderer so unrepentant that he lies on his clemency application.

Herzfeld cited other questionable commutations -- the three-time drunk driver who served nine months of a six-year sentence, won a Huckabee commutation, then parole and then his fourth drunk-driving conviction. Huckabee advocated the release of a convicted rapist who was then paroled and later found guilty of murdering a Missouri woman.

As Herzfeld noted, no governor should grant clemency for a violent crime over the objections of the victim or victim's family, or for an inmate who has not proved he has rehabilitated himself.

I wish Bush knew what Huckabee knows: There is a place for redemption in the criminal justice system. Governors and presidents have a duty to find that ground and shorten sentences that far outstrip the crime or an inmate's guilt.

A good leader wants to correct the system's excesses, while recognizing a duty to protect the public. My wish for 2008 is a candidate who shares Huckabee's ideals, but not his rose-colored glasses.