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Posted by on Dec 1, 2009 in Politics | 17 comments

Huckabee, Clemmons, Clemency, & Criminal Justice

UPDATE: Police shot and killed Maurice Clemmons early this morning in Seattle. They still don’t know what prompted him to shoot four police officers as they did paperwork on their laptops Sunday morning.
It’s hard for those of us with a liberal bent (like me) — who argue for a more forgiving and restorative criminal justice system — to resist calling out any conservative who commutes the sentence of a criminal who goes on to commit a heinous act. The acts Maurice Clemmons is accused of committing are particularly heinous. And Mike Huckabee is not just any conservative. Still, I’ll try.

In How Clemmons Went From Prisoner To Alleged Cop Killer — And Why It Matters For Mike Huckabee, Justin Elliott just lays out the facts. He points to an ABC report that many suggest Huckabee was swayed to commute Maurice Clemmons’ sentence by his religious views. That doesn’t sound like an unreasonable exercise of religious influence to me.

In Fox News Lets Huckabee Off the Hook for Releasing Clemmons, Dominic Holden quotes Huckabee saying that commuting Clemmons’ sentence is “not something I’m happy about at this particular moment.” Bill O’Reilly responds, “It’s not your fault, governor… I’m not saying it’s your fault. I don’t think anybody watching thinks it’s your fault.”

Holden went on to catch a typical O’Reilly factual error, and I will follow The Slog for updates on the hunt for Clemmons. But I will not so quickly jump on the make Clemmons Huckabee’s Willie Horton bandwagon (even as I am tempted by Jeralyn’s persuasive suggestion that several of Huckabee’s pardons made no sense).

I’m in favor of clemency and the fact that Huckabee cited Clemmons’ youth in commuting his sentence is precisely the kind of thing I called for a couple weeks back. And I was pleased to read last week in the NYTimes that Right and Left are joining forces on criminal justice:

Edwin Meese III, who was known as a fervent supporter of law and order as attorney general in the Reagan administration, now spends much of his time criticizing what he calls the astounding number and vagueness of federal criminal laws.

Mr. Meese once referred to the American Civil Liberties Union as part of the “criminals’ lobby.” These days, he said, “in terms of working with the A.C.L.U., if they want to join us, we’re happy to have them.”

Dick Thornburgh, who succeeded Mr. Meese as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and stayed on under President George Bush, echoed that sentiment in Congressional testimony in July.

“The problem of overcriminalization is truly one of those issues upon which a wide variety of constituencies can agree,” Mr. Thornburgh said. “Witness the broad and strong support from such varied groups as the Heritage Foundation, the Washington Legal Foundation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the A.B.A., the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society and the A.C.L.U.” […]

Harvey A. Silverglate, a left-wing civil liberties lawyer in Boston, says he has been surprised and delighted by the reception that his new book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” has gotten in conservative circles. (A Heritage Foundation official offered this reporter a copy.)

The book argues that federal criminal law is so comprehensive and vague that all Americans violate it every day, meaning prosecutors can indict anyone at all.

I hardly even care that Meese blames the “liberal ideas of extending the power of the state” for an out-of-control criminal justice system. The Economist interview with Radley Balko that Nick pointed to here on TMV over the weekend is also getting good traction:

[T]he incentive problems are most apparent with prosecutors. Prosecutors get no credit for cases they decide not to bring, either because of a lack of evidence or because pressing charges wouldn’t be in the interest of justice. They’re only rewarded for winning convictions. That’s what gets them promoted, or re-elected, or gives them the elevated profile to run for higher office. Every incentive points toward winning convictions. And particularly with prosecutors, there’s really no penalty at all for going too far to get a guilty verdict. One real disservice the Duke lacrosse case did for the criminal-justice system is it put in the public consciousness the idea that bad actors like Mike Nifong are regularly disciplined for misconduct. In truth, that case was really exceptional.

I believe our criminal justice system is brutal and broken. I want a system that keeps those guilty of heinous crimes locked up. But I also want it to work harder to keep people out of it and try to restore those who will leave it to become productive contributors to society. That clearly did not happen for Maurice Clemmons. And now those crimes he is accused of committing will make it harder to move the criminal justice system in that direction.

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  • I don’t like Mike Huckabee. I am a liberal. That said I’m willing to not only let Huckabee off the hook but say he did the right thing at the time. There were plenty of opportunities for authorities in both Arkansas and Washington to take Clemmons out of the loop. Unlike many of my liberal peers I do believe that there are people who are too broken to be fixed and should be locked away forever. I don’t believe this was obvious when Gov Huckabee granted his clemency.

  • DLS

    There’s nothing wrong with what you did, Joe. I heard about the Huckabee clemency issue this morning, and I’m surprised it took this long for a thread to be started on this site about it, honestly; given the kind of liberal to very liberal typical politics here, I expected at least two or three threads (though admittedly not as many as threads about, say, Sarah Palin or Carrie Prejean).

    Only time will tell if this will be a fatal blow to a Huckabee bid in 2012 for the Presidency. Aside from being Religious Right (an instant DQ and toxic waste among far lefties), this clemency issue is worse than Willie Horton. (Will the more nefarous Dems hire Horton to be in a political hit ad in 2012, if Horton is around then and so is Huckabee?)

    Smaller and less important issues are two. This is an example where a GOP celeb did something (which backfired, in this case) that is normally associated with enlightened liberalism. So think once, then twice, before being too vicious and hypocritical, lefties.

    More relevent is that this issue may eventually die, but lefties may not be too upset. It may die because it’s another three years until the next Presidential campaign. That’s a lot of time for this issue to subside. But (lefties take note) that’s also a lot of time for Huckabee as a candidate (independently of this clemency issue) to subside as a Presidential candidate, too. The jockeying (as I’ve described) it as early as last year by GOP leaders for public view related obviously to an early positioning for the 2012 Presidential campaign is just ludicrous. Even early to mid-2011 is still too early, ridiculously early. (Jeb Bush could still likely do well to wait until January or February 2012 to begin campaigning and win the GOP nomination.) The point here is that the clemency issue may eventually subside, but so will Huckabee, had he been involved in this issue or not.

    • JeffersonDavis

      I don’t know, DLS. I really don’t think this is the same thing as the Willie Horton incident, even though it’s the same thing as the Willie Horton incident.

      Allow me to explain that obviously odd statement……

      When a liberal commutes a sentence and the scumbag goes on to kill or rape; it becomes fodder for the right to nail the candidate for “typical liberal soft-on-crime” policies.

      When a conservative does the same thing, the left won’t touch it because they already have a liberal view of the criminal justice system and commutations play into that hand.

      That’s probably why there hasn’t been many threads on this subject. Since the mainstream media believes in commutations and smacks-on-the-wrist; they’ll stay away from Huckabee (for now) on this one.

      Conversely, I look for the far right to possibly nail him on this during a primary battle.

      That said…. I like Huckabee. He is social conservative (like me), but is not a right-winger on many other things. He’s not a “true” conservative. And the most important reason I like him: I just plain trust the guy.

      • DLS

        Hey, J.D.,

        “When a liberal commutes a sentence and the scumbag goes on to kill or rape; it becomes fodder for the right to nail the candidate for ‘typical liberal soft-on-crime’ policies.”

        This is why I wrote earlier about liberals here.  Because,

        “When a conservative does the same thing, the left won’t touch it because they already have a liberal view of the criminal justice system and commutations play into that hand.

        That’s probably why there hasn’t been many threads on this subject.  Since the mainstream media believes in commutations and smacks-on-the-wrist; they’ll stay away from Huckabee (for now) on this one.”

        I’m rhetorically daring the liberals to be hypocritical — and to criticize Huckabee or “the GOP” for being “hypocritical” in doing what they have no doubt criticized liberals for doing.

        “I like Huckabee.  He is social conservative (like me), but is not a right-winger on many other things.”

        I like him, too.  I’m not a social (or religious) conservative, but like him, anyway (and am happy to defend him against the many scummy attacks from the Left).  I believe he may not be as up to the Presidency and as on top of world-affairs, at least not during the 2008 contest, anyway, as would have been Hillary (and earlier, Bill) Clinton, also “from” Arkansas (note).  I do believe he demonstrated himself better than Palin did (to name someone else who wasn’t fully informed on world affairs and related issues).  Huckabee more than Palin would have done the conventional thing Vanity Fair “recommended” anyone in Palin’s (and to a lesser extent, Huckabee’s) position should have done, go back home, study, work with trusted staff, and be better prepped for the next contest.  I believe it’s too early to write him (or Palin) off completely, but with three years to go, there’s a good chance Huckabee (and Palin) could fade from eventual candidacy.

        As far as basic decision-making and sensibility as a President, Huck is just fine, as is Obama currently.

        • JeffersonDavis

          “I believe he may not be as up to the Presidency and as on top of world-affairs, at least not during the 2008 contest, anyway”

          I tend to agree with you. You need the right person at the right time.
          By 2012, however, I truly think he should be the man for the job. His mix of conservatism and moderate fiscal spending would be ideal to refocus our nation’s efforts inward – after Afghanistan.

          We need a good “home” President for a while. I’m war weary.

  • Bill O’Reilly is your classic big government conservative. When it comes to civil liberties and law-and-order type issues, O’Reilly consistently advocates whatever position will lead to the most amount of government control, the most draconian punishments, and the most amount of time in jail. Whether its the War on Drugs, the Patriot Act, or obscenity on television, he consistently takes the pro-government/anti-liberty position.

    O’Reilly is the type of guy that sees every social issue in terms of black and white with no shades of gray in between. Everything is either good or evil, and God help you if you’re a civil libertarian who is invited onto his show and doesn’t agree with his rigid view of the world.

  • spirasol

    I agree with the author: that our prison system is no longer rehabilitative, only punitive………so what goes in comes out worse. We should try to do better. Also on the WHO goes to jail issue; there are inequities there too.

    Justice is fleeting at best today fleeting all the more. In a system where our system of governance is often confused with our economic model and the combination leads to essentially class justice. I gotta kick out of Tiger Woods turning down the 3rd request for an interview, when in my neighborhood, it wouldn’t even have been worded as a request.

    It is tempting to do pay back for the Willie Horton advert, to extract a little pleasure in seeing a Repub squirm for something he has little control of. ………..but no, it wasn’t right then and it wouldn’t be right now.

    • JeffersonDavis

      I really don’t think Huckabee is “squirming” about this.
      I believe that he feels a sense of remorse. I’m not a mind reader, but that’s the vibe I got from his statements.

      As far as our criminal justice system, I stinks all the way around. You can’t rehabiliate some kinds of crime. Our prisons should be filled with thieves, petty criminals, and 2nd/3rd degree murderers. The rapists, pedophiles, and 1st degree murderers should be killed. Of course, I don’t expect you to agree with that opinion. It’s just that…. My opinion.

  • cambridge_paul

    The UK’s experience is not ideal, but because our judiciary and prosecuting authorities are separate and non-elected (and aggressively apolitical) it is rare that a criminal trial is affected by politics. When the criminal law wanders into the political arena here in the UK someone’s job in the legal system is usually terminated!!! In addition, I’m sorry to say that my professional encounters with members of the American Bar involved in either prosecuting or defending have not left me with my respect for them. There’s far too much grandstanding, press seeking and sheer incompetence. I am not alone in this view — now retired from the law, I’m surrounded by members of Cambridge University’s Law faculty, who hold similar views.

  • CStanley

    When a conservative does the same thing, the left won’t touch it because they already have a liberal view of the criminal justice system and commutations play into that hand.

    That’s probably why there hasn’t been many threads on this subject. Since the mainstream media believes in commutations and smacks-on-the-wrist; they’ll stay away from Huckabee (for now) on this one.

    Not to mention the most obvious problem for any leftie who might be tempted to ‘Willie Horton’ Huckabee over this- the fact that the Horton ads were universally decried by the left as racist, and this would be no different (for the record, I don’t think racism is inherent in either case, since both are actual events in which the governors were involved in pardoning actual criminals who happened to be black- though of course it’s quite possible that those who created the Horton ads saw a two-fer in showing a ‘scary black man who was let out of jail by a soft-on-crime liberal’.)

    Anyway….my take on the current incident is that it gets to the difficult dilemma of trying to preempt crime. At what point should someone be held responsible for not having the prescience to decide which juvenile criminals will go on to become dangerous sociopaths? The answer in my view is that in a free society, we can’t risk having this expectation of anyone- which means that Huckabee probably acted appropriately at the time (if the facts as I’ve currently heard them are accurate.) The sentence that this guy received for his crimes as a 16 year old was excessive, so his sentence was commuted.

  • superdestroyer

    Dangerous criminals should be legally handled the same way as the government handles dangeorus chemicals. If the State of Arkansas had carelessly dumped hazardous chemicals, then the State of Arkansas and the officials responsible would be held accountable for their decisions.

    Yet, government officials let dangerous criminals out of prison early and then refuse to monitor them no matter how much hard they cause. The politicians can do it because they cannot be held legally responsible.

  • DdW

    If Huckabee were a liberal and a Democrat, he would be a punching bag for right wing blowhards an example of clueless, soft-on-crime politicians at their worst. Fox News would be stalking him, as they have others responsible for letting criminals out early.

  • pacatrue

    I haven’t heard yet (though I am sure I could look it up) what exactly his crimes were in Arkansas. In my mind, it is when you kill someone that you get 100 years. But he hadn’t killed anyone then, right? I can’t help but wonder if the original punishment had been more reasonable, say 20 years, that Huckabee wouldn’t have been motivated to use clemency. And so he would have still been locked up.

    But I’m speculating.

    • JeffersonDavis

      The way I understand it, pacatrue…. he was given 146 years in prison for steeling a purse (armed). The three strikes clause kicked in. Keep in mind, he was 16 years old at this time. Huckabee commuted 100 years of that sentence. He was then eligible for parol after 11 years in prison. He got out, served his parole and moved on. He was apparently STILL a scumbag.

      On the surface, a 16 year old armed purse-snatcher didn’t warrant 146 years in prison, and on the advice of his Attorney General, Governor Huckabee commuted the sentence to allow the young man to only serve 11 years – putting him out of prison at 27 years old. I’m saying it was right or wrong, but that’s how I’ve come to understand what happened. I have yet to verify it through research.

  • DLS

    “it gets to the difficult dilemma of trying to preempt crime”

    Or punish appropriately, since a lot of crime isn’t deterred (many criminals have no conscience or have no medium- as well as long-term orientation of thinking, and are almost entirely impulsive and present-oriented).

    Left unsaid deliberately by me earlier, but which also enters this given the hostility and frequent hatred the Left has for the Religious Right, is to what extent the commutation was done on Huckabee’s moral grounds (which have a religious involvement), or (more to the point, I was thinking), if the prisoner had claimed to have been reformed and “found” religion, which no doubt would have appealed to the governor.

  • DanML

    Here is the CNN interview of Huckabee defending his clemency decision. He admits to knowing how violent Clemmons was.

    ” Clemmons moved from Washington to Arkansas as a youngster. There, he had several run-ins with the law, and eventually received the hefty prison sentence for a host of charges — including robberies, burglaries, thefts and bringing a gun to school.

    During a pretrial hearing, he hid a piece of metal in his sock, court documents said. Before the start of another hearing, he grabbed a padlock off his holding cell and threw it at a court bailiff. He missed, and the lock hit his mother, who had come to bring him clothes.

    “That’s the one word that came to my mind that I remembered about him, was that he was mean,” said W.A. McCormick, a deputy prosecuting attorney at the time. “He was shackled in court and deputies placed behind him while he was tried because he was such a security risk.”

    Clemmons continued to lash out violently behind the prison fences in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

    “Over and over again,” said Larry Jegley, the prosecutor who put Clemmons away.

    “Failure to obey, engaging in sexual activity,” he rattled off the charges as he flipped through Clemmons’ prison record, “failure to obey, possession or introduction of drugs, firearms.”

    McCormick said he told the parole board — repeatedly, in writing — that Clemmons should remain in prison. And he would have opposed it once again if he had known that Huckabee was considering commuting Clemmons’ sentence.”

    So Huck knew that Clemmons possessed a firearm while in prison and still granted clemency.

  • DanML

    Huckabee: If I Had Same Facts Today, I’d Commute Sentence Again

    “The former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate told a local TV station in West Lafayette, Indiana, on Tuesday that his decision to lessen the 108-year sentence of Maurice Clemmons — who was convicted of aggravated robbery when he was 17 — was ultimately the right one to make, one that others in his shoes would have done as well.”

    “Despite the torrent of criticism, Huckabee stuck to his guns. “If I had the exact same information in front of me tonight that I had 9 years ago, in a case exactly the same, I would make the exact same decision, because I can’t imagine that anyone would not,” he said.”

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