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Jeff Jacoby / December 10, 2009

Huckabee’s Deadly Gamble

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee wasn’t mincing words last week when he blasted criticism of the clemency he granted Maurice Clemmons in 2000 — clemency that ultimately led to the Thanksgiving weekend murder of four Washington state police officers — as “disgusting,” or when he deplored “how sick our society has become that people are more concerned about a campaign three years from now” — the 2012 presidential campaign — “than those grieving families in Washington.”

“Disgusting” and “sick” are strong words. But this isn’t the first time Huckabee has lashed out at critics of his clemency decisions.

In 2004, when the then—governor’s commutation enabled convicted drunk driver Eugene Fields to walk free after less than eight months of a six—year sentence, the director of Arkansas Mothers Against Drunk Driving complained. “We are deeply disturbed,” she said, “at the message this sends to those who faithfully enforce, prosecute, adjudicate, serve on juries, and suffer the consequences of drunk driving offenders.” Huckabee angrily accused MADD of trying to “fan the flames of controversy” and pandering to “the unusual curiosity of certain media members.”

That was nothing to the supercilious reply received by prosecutor Robert Herzfeld, who wrote a letter calling Huckabee’s clemency policies “fatally flawed” and suggesting that he explain his reasons when issuing a pardon or commutation. From Huckabee’s office came a mocking rejoinder: “The governor read your letter and laughed out loud. He wanted me to respond to you. I wish you success as you cut down on your caffeine consumption.”

Huckabee holds himself out as an exemplar of good character — two of his books are titled “Character Makes a Difference” and “Character Is the Issue” — but so far he has not mustered the integrity to admit that Herzfeld was right: His promiscuous approach to executive clemency did indeed prove fatal. During his 10 years as governor, he pardoned or commuted the sentences of an astonishing 1,033 criminals — more than double the grants of clemency by his three immediate predecessors combined. Had Huckabee been less eager to usher Clemmons to an early release, Mark Renninger, Tina Griswold, Gregory Richards, and Ronnie Owens — the four police officers gunned down in a Tacoma, Wash., coffee shop last month — might still be alive.

There is no telling how many other innocents have been victimized by Huckabee’s parolees. The shocking massacre in Tacoma made headlines nationwide, but what about the other violent criminals set free thanks to a Huckabee commutation? How many of them went on to commit new rapes, new armed robberies, new assaults? How many of them will do so in the years ahead?

Huckabee defends himself by pointing out that the Clemmons whose sentence he commuted in 2000 was not yet a rapist and murderer. “If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later,” Huckabee insists, “I obviously would have made a different decision.”

But that doesn’t explain why Huckabee saw fit to overrule the Arkansas judges and jurors who saw Clemmons up close, heard the evidence for and against him, sized him up as a dangerous, violent, unrepentant thug, and concluded that he deserved to be sentenced to a combined 108 years in prison. The original judges and jurors were no more prophetically endowed than Huckabee, but they were right about Clemmons. Huckabee, along with Arkansas’ parole board, was wrong. He should have the backbone to say so.

It doesn’t take a seer to know that when criminals are released early, more crime follows. In 2002, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, summarizing data from the largest recidivism study ever conducted in the United States, reported that more than 67 percent of former inmates released from state prison are rearrested for at least one serious new crime within three years. Between 1994 and 1997, criminals paroled in just 15 states racked up 744,000 new arrest charges. “These charges,” the bureau noted, “included almost 21,000 homicides, 200,000 robberies, 50,000 rapes and sexual assaults, and almost 300,000 assaults.”

Other than in cases of manifest injustice, when a judge and jury say a criminal belongs behind bars, clemency should be all but unthinkable. Governors have no business gambling with the lives and safety of their constituents. Huckabee “laughed out loud” when a prosecutor warned him that early release can be fatal. And now he calls his critics disgusting?

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