Gov. Mike Huckabee flip-flopped on executive clemency last week. Good for him.
It was a delicious coincidence of timing. Huckabee flip-flopped in the very week in which the Republican Party deployed the Huckster to attack John Kerry for flip-flopping.
Great leaders never stop learning. When evidence demands, they change their minds. One man's flip-flop is another man's enlightenment.
It took Huckabee eight years in office to be enlightened, but he finally realized that no one was well served by the mysterious process by which he shortened prison sentences. It's a controversy that has stewed since he worked, coldly indifferent to the victim, to free rapist and killer Wayne Dumond. Dumond went on to kill again.
Huckabee insisted that public complaints by Prosecutors Robert Herzfeld in Benton and Larry Jegley in Little Rock had not influenced his decision to bring more transparency to the process. He said their complaints actually might have delayed his change of course. That's probably true, but for a petty reason. Huckabee admits fallibility grudgingly. He didn't want to give them the satisfaction. Certainly they influenced him.
Huckabee didn't exactly admit mistakes. He said he had followed bad advice in refusing to explain commutations. He blamed some problems - poor records and the failure to notify some victims' families - on the parole board. He continued to resist explanation of his most controversial decisions - freedom for a mostly white and male group of killers who had ins with the governor.
Huckabee is courageous to take the considerable political risk inherent in exercising the clemency power. It's important. The possibility of clemency encourages better prison behavior. Huckabee also witnesses his Christian faith by putting his signature to the proposition that a criminal has been rehabilitated. Counting his heavy use of the pardon power - pardons are most often granted to restore voting rights and clear records of people who have completed sentences for relatively minor crimes - he's been more lenient with criminals than any governor on record.
This story isn't finished. For one thing, the governor seems inclined only to mark a rudimentary checklist on reasons for future commutations (rehabilitation, terminal illness, disproportionate sentence, etc.). We ask governors to produce a message for each bill they veto. This governor churns out books, a weekly newspaper column, countless TV commercials and quips at the drop of a question. Surely he can find the time to write a paragraph or two on his reasons for overturning wishes of a judge, jury, prosecutor and victims to free a killer. Forget the law. It's the right thing to do.
The legislature can improve the process without stepping on the governor's constitutional clemency powers. It must guarantee adequate records, plus easy public access, at the parole board. It is also past time to modify the blanket exception from the Freedom of Information Act that governors claim for all their office papers. Where the governor's records influence action by a public agency, they should be open. This would include, of course, the input on commutation matters from the governor's cronies.
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