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A quality of mercy in Haley Barbour's pardons

As he stepped down as Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour pardoned more than 200 people, including some convicted of murder. His action, and the uproar over it, help ignite a useful debate on using mercy as a tool for justice.

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On the porch of his home in Wesson, Miss., Thomas Ailes displays Executive Order No. 1083, which pardons him for a marijuana conviction from the 1970s. The departing Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, pardoned more than 200 people.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

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Haley Barbour, who once toyed with running for president, kicked up a Katrina-like political storm this month as he departed the governor’s mansion in Mississippi. In an act of unexpected mercy, he pardoned more than 200 people, some of them convicted for murder and other violent crimes.

The law-and-order state of Mississippi was stunned. The state attorney general, the new governor, and the legislature are now all taking actions that signal a loud “objection!” A court has put a hold on some of the pardons.

America’s justice system grants the pardon power to most governors as well as the president. It has been used – or abused – ever since George Washington. What makes Mr. Barbour’s actions so startling is not just the high number of pardons but that he so openly challenged a four-decade-long trend in America toward harsh and certain sentencing.

Barbour justified his move simply as an act of Christian forgiveness. But it was also assisted by recommendations of probation and parole officials. While his timing and transparency are in question, he has at least reopened a needed national discussion on how justice must be tempered by mercy. America’s incarceration rate cannot continue to far exceed that of other developed nations.

“I believe in second chances,” he said.

The pardon power has long served not only to correct the excesses and errors of justice but also to further justice. Pardoning can help restore a convict’s place in society, providing a model for others still in jail. If done with consistency and not favoritism, pardons are a tool for the reform of individuals and thus a safety measure for society.

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