More On the Huckabee Clemmons Commutation

Following up on Adam’s great post about Mike Huckabee’s commutation of Maurice Clemmons (the Arkansas man who murdered four police officers outside Seattle last week), I see that Huckabee is continuing to defend his decision.  In an article for Human Events, Huckabee presents his case:

The reasons were straightforward — a unanimous recommendation from the board, support from a trial judge and no objections from officials in a case that involved a 16 year old sentenced to a term that was exponentially longer than similar cases and certainly longer than had he been white, upper middle class, and represented by effective counsel who would have clearly objected to the sentencing.  (His race, economic status, or education level are not excuses for his behavior because many people of color who are uneducated and living in abject poverty are civil, trustworthy, and honest to a fault and many well-educated, wealthy, white people are dirtbags — think Bernie Madoff).  But sadly, Arkansas has had numerous instances of disproportionate sentencing in which a probation and fine would be meted out to white upper class kids whose parents were able to obtain the services of excellent defense attorneys, while young black males committing the same crimes and represented by public defenders would end up with inexplicably long prison terms.  Blacks comprise 15% of the state’s population, but 50% of the inmate population, some of which is due to the fact that their sentences are often longer and they are less likely to be paroled.

(More on Huckabee’s continued defense here and here.)

Whatever the merits of this particular clemency decision, like Adam, I admire Huckabee’s practice of taking the clemency power seriously when he was Governor and his decision to defend and explain his actions rather than buy into the attempt by some in the media to paint this as a black and white issue.  The fact is that there will always be a risk that a person released from prison, whether after a commutation or the natural termination of a sentence, will commit a crime after they’ve been released.  Unless we are prepared as a society to sentence every 16 year old who commits a robbery to life in prison (which, of course, is what a 108 year sentence effectively was), I think we’d do well to focus on how to better monitor and re-integrate prisoners once they are released.  And, as Doug Berman notes, the Clemmons tragedy certainly seems to raise as many, if not more, questions about those issues as it does about the clemency process.  (Jonathan Simon at PrawfsBlawg also has a thoughful post on some of the bigger-picture issues raised by this case.)

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3 Responses

  1. Adam Benforado says:

    Alex, Very nice post — and a great excerpt from Huckabee that I hadn’t seen! I think you’re exactly right that it is critical to think harder about monitoring and re-integrating prisoners once they’re released. I might add that if we are serious about preventing tragedies like the Clemmons case, we should also think about what happens within the prison walls (and whether that may influence future criminality). In doing some research recently, I came across a statistic that 95 percent of individuals who are currently in isolation facilities (the type where they lock you up in a closet, by yourself, for 23 hours a day) will eventually be released back into society. Indeed, each year, Texas takes about a thousand or so folks out of solitary, walks them to the prison gates, and let’s them free. Call me crazy, but that seems dangerous. And it’s not the part about releasing people back into society that frightens me; it’s the fact that we may be creating anti-social monsters (or at least exacerbating existing antisocial tendencies) through our system of punishment . . .

  2. Alan says:

    “Unless we are prepared as a society to sentence every 16 year old who commits a robbery to life in prison. . . .”

    He didn’t commit just one crime. Your argument is completely disingenuous.

  3. Alex Kreit says:

    Adam, Thanks for your nice comment. I’ve been meaning to reply but last week ended up getting away from me a bit. I think you raise a really great point regarding thinking about what happens within the prison walls! Coincidentally, I’ve wondered myself for some time why more attention isn’t paid to this question among legal academics. It seems like most every law journal article I’ve seen about the “hows” of punishment focuses on the validity of shaming punishments or similar questions. While those are interesting issues, I do wonder why the law doesn’t focus more on how incarceration is carried out.