Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Huckabee's pardons at issue after police killings

The shooting deaths Sunday of four police officers near Tacoma, Wash., and the ensuing manhunt for the suspect have renewed scrutiny of the pardon record of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who commuted the suspect's prison term nine years ago, leading to his release.


The assassination of four police officers has brought the inevitable finger pointing  - the assassin (who was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer) had been released from prison in Arkansas due to a commutation issued by then-Governor Huckabee. Salon Magazine has dug a bit deeper into this issue. It seems that the pardon and commutation process in at least two other cases may have been compromised by several members of the clergy who were friends of Huckabee. Did the same happen in this case? Read CNN's coverage of the commutation and parole process in this case.

The urge to compare this incident to that of Willie Horton is irresistible. Claims that Huckabee's 2012 presidential aspirations have been thwarted are already circulating. But there are lots of questions that need to be posed and answered.

Why was the suspect out on bail in Washington? $150,000 for rape and assault (among other charges) seems a bit minimal given the suspect's criminal history. Why no preventive bail in this case?

Why was the suspect not being supervised in the community (either in Arkansas or Washington) given his criminal history?

Why didn't the family intervene based on published reports that the suspect had become increasing erratic in his behavior and had threatened to kill officers the night before the actual murders occurred?

While there are lots more questions that need answers, two important issues have emerged from this tragedy already. We need to analyze what went wrong in this case and improve the system. I suspect that one of the contributing factors is an overburdened criminal justice system. By incarcerating a variety of offenders, both violent and non-violent, the system may have lost its ability to focus on the truly dangerous ones. And what role did politics and personal ideology play in the release of a dangerous felon?

The other fallout from this case is that already skittish crime control policy makers may become even more reluctant to move forward with much needed sentencing reforms and other programs that might earn them criticism (founded and unfounded) for being soft on crime.

While we have no perfect system of predicting who is and is not a threat to offend in the future, we can and must do better.

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