A few months ago, Maurice Clemmons killed four police officers before himself being killed. He had many previous violent felony convictions. However, in his youth, he was pardoned by Mick Huckabee, then Governor of Arkansas.
Many have said that this will kill Huckabee's chances if he runs for President. Not that I would vote for the man, but this is unfortunate. The U.S. criminal justice system needs more pardons and commutations, not fewer - the folks who falsely think that just getting tough on crime will stop it will use this as ammunition. Now, it may well be the case that then-Gov. Huckabee and his staff were sloppy in researching offenders' backgrounds, as Debra Saunders writes for SFGate. However, the tough on crime crowd will say this proves that nobody should be pardoned - and they are wrong. Our focus should be on how to reduce crime generally, how to better improve the system so that we are really segregating the truly violent offenders, how to rehabilitate those who can be rehabilitated, how to ease re-entry into society and how to target the offenders who are truly rehabilitated for pardons.
Anyway, in an article for the Washington Post, Huckabee explains why he pardoned Clemmons:
The nation was stunned by the senseless and savage cold-blooded murders of four young police officers in Lakewood, Wash., over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Whenever a police officer or soldier is killed, the loss is even more profound, for they are the ones who stand between our way of life and total anarchy.
Nine years ago, the name Maurice Clemmons crossed my desk. I commuted his sentence from 108 years to 47 years. I take full responsibility for my actions of nine years ago. I acted on the facts presented to me in 2000. If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later, I obviously would have made a different decision. If I only had the same information I had then, I would make the same decision.
Each state is different, but in Arkansas, a governor doesn't initiate a parole -- the Post Prison Transfer Board (PPTB) does so after it conducts a thorough review of an inmate's file and request. The board then makes a recommendation to the governor, who decides to grant or deny it.
If the decision is made to grant any form of clemency (the broad term for a commutation or a full pardon), the governor gives notice of intent, and the file is sent to the prosecutor, judge, law enforcement officials, the attorney general and the secretary of state, as well as to the news media. A period of 30 days is allotted for these officials and the public to weigh in, at which point the final decision is rendered.
Despite news reports, no objections were raised during the 30-day response period for this case. In fact, only letters of support for Clemmons' commutation were received, including one from the circuit judge.
Between 1,000 and 1,200 requests for some form of clemency came to my desk each and every year of the 10 and a half years I was governor. An overwhelming majority of the time, I denied the requests. When I did grant them, it was based on the recommendations of all five of the members of the PPTB, with consideration given to input from public officials and my own personal review of each and every file.
Maurice Clemmons was 16 years old when he committed the crimes of burglary and robbery. He was sentenced to a total of 108 years in prison, dramatically outside the norm for sentencing for the crimes he committed and the age at which he committed them.
In 2000, the PPTB unanimously recommended that his sentence be commuted after he had already served 11 years in prison. As per the recommendation, I commuted his sentence to the term of 47 years (still a long sentence in comparison to others for the type of crime he had committed), making him parole eligible. It did not parole him, as governors do not have that power in Arkansas. He would have to separately apply for parole and meet the criteria for it.
Three months after the commutation, Clemmons met the criteria for parole and was paroled to supervision in late 2000. When he violated the terms of his parole, he was returned to prison and should have remained behind bars. For reasons only the prosecutor can explain, he ended up dropping the charges, allowing Clemmons to leave prison and return to supervised parole.
Clemmons moved to his native Washington State and engaged in intermittent criminal activity that increased in violence and frequency. He was arrested on charges of raping a child, yet was allowed to post bail in Washington. While out on bail, he committed the unspeakable acts of murdering four valiant police officers.
I can't explain why he wasn't prosecuted properly for the parole violations, or why he was allowed to make bail in Washington and was not incarcerated earlier for crimes committed there. I take responsibility for my actions, but not for the actions of others, nor for the misinformed words of commentators.
The two professions I value most in our society are soldiers and police officers, with firemen and schoolteachers right behind. The death of the four officers in Lakewood should never have happened. I wish Maurice Clemmons' file had never crossed my desk. But it did. The decision I made is one I now wish could have been made with a view into the future. That decision would have been different.
None of this is of any comfort to the families of these police officers, nor should it be. Their loss is senseless. No words or deeds by anyone will bring them back to their loved ones. Our system is not perfect, and neither are those responsible for administering it. The system and those of us who are supposed to make sure it works sometimes get it wrong. In this case, we clearly did.
Mike Huckabee was governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007.