Clemency for prisoners: Too much control, not enough compassion

As an admitted control freak, it pains me to write these words. But the truth is:  some people have too much control.

You don’t have to look far to see it. In Washington, Grover Norquist has too much control. In the world of sports, some think that Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has too much power. Donald Trump and Carl Icahn and the Koch Brothers come to mind.  And right here in Missouri we have, surprisingly, Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nixon is a middle-of-the-road Democrat saddled with a Republican legislature.He seems to prefer to keep a low profile and doesn’t like to make waves. But in one area, he has ultimate authority: the power to grant pardons or clemency to any of the 31,000 individuals locked up in Missouri prisons.

This is an awesome responsibility, and it’s one that a few other states have seen fit to grant to special boards or commissions rather than the chief executive. That’s a sound idea, and can be explained in two words: Willie Horton.

Willie Horton was a convicted felon serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison in 1986. He was released as part of a weekend furlough program, and he failed to return.  While he was out he raped a woman and committed several other crimes before he was captured and put back in prison in Maryland.

Michael Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was furloughed. When Dukakis sought the presidency two years later, the Willie Horton episode came to be a major factor in the campaign against him. He was portrayed as “soft on crime,” and this portrayal may have been one of the factors responsible for his defeat.

Jay Nixon is a lame-duck governor, but he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the U. S. Senate, or even the vice presidency. With sugar plums like this dancing in his head, is it any wonder that the specter of Willie Horton looms large?

The governor could be relieved of a daunting and possibly perilous act if the power to grant clemency was removed from his office and granted to the state Board of Probation and Parole. Perhaps experts in criminal justice or psychiatry could be added to the panel when clemency is considered for qualified prisoners who likely pose no threat to society. The result might be more second chances for those who have made grievous mistakes and tried to pay their debt to society.

I feel sorry for Gov. Nixon. He has a number of clemency petitions on his desk. One is for a woman who killed her abusive husband; she has been a model prisoner for many years. If she is forced to complete her sentence, she will be 86 years old when she is released. Another is for a man who committed murder when he was 20 years old; the jury was not informed that he possibly acted in self-defense. His sentence was 50 years without the possibility of parole.

Granting clemency to these and others will require the governor to demonstrate both cojones and compassion; courage and conviction, and some common sense.  Let’s hope that he can remember that one of the synonyms for clemency is “mercy.”