By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
Que Paso columnist
(Originally published in the High Plains Reader December 9, 2009 by Cindy Shawcross*)
Over the last week, Mike Huckabee has probably suffered the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Former Governor of Arkansas Huckabee had enjoyed fame for his successful governorship of the state of Arkansas; his bid for the presidency in 2008; his bass playing; his Christian views; the release of his seventh book, and his talk show on Fox.
Most recently, Huckabee is all over the news for making the decision as Arkansas governor to grant clemency in 2000 to Maurice Clemmons, who was recently shot after allegedly murdering four Seattle, Wash. officers. Huckabee is reported to have made the decision to commute Clemmons’ 108 year sentence to 47 years, which made him eligible for parole. Clemmons served 11 years of that sentence before being paroled.
Although Huckabee seemed genuinely horrified and saddened by the news that a man whose sentence he commuted had committed these heinous crimes, he also defended his decision, saying, “I looked at the file. Every bit of it. And here was a case where a guy had been given 108 years. Now, if you think a 108-year sentence is an appropriate sentence for a 16-year-old for the crimes he committed, then you should run for Governor of Arkansas.”
One of Huckabee’s aides recently released documents from the Clemmons file because of her concern that Huckabee is being disingenuous about the warning signs that Clemmons could pose a danger to society. But the letters from prosecutors and victims of Clemmons that Huckabee reviewed at the time were speculations about the future. No one, including Huckabee, knew with any certainty what Clemmons would do in the future.
Given the high profile of the murders of these police officers, and the political aspirations of Mike Huckabee himself, the news stories have speculated on Huckabee’s knowledge of the danger Clemmons would pose to the public if released; his political future; the type of politician he is; and how his decision to commute this sentence reflects a lack of commitment to “conservative values.”
What no one has talked about is Clemmons’ race (he was African-American); the disparities in our justice system in arresting and sentencing minorities; the disparities in our prison system in numbers of minorities; the effects of lengthy prison sentences on a young psyche; the rehabilitation and opportunities available to felons after their release.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population and a quarter of its prisoners. For every 100,000 people, 751 are incarcerated in the U.S. If you only count adults, the amount of people incarcerated jumps to 1 out of every 100! The median number of persons per 100,000 incarcerated in all other nations is 125, about one-sixth of the U.S rate.
The breakdown for minority incarceration rates is even more alarming. Although African-American males still comprise the largest group of minorities in prison or jail (4.8 percent), immigrants are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, and the unequaled powers granted to immigration authorities by Congress in 1996 allow for the incarceration of people en mass for an indefinite amount of time, and all without legal counsel or statute of limitations.
Clearly, we in America deal very differently with crime and punishment. Where once America was known as a model of justice and democracy, the American prison system took a sharp turn when the 1970s “tough on crime” era began. Since then, America’s incarceration rate has increased rapidly and has continued to rise at a steady rate. As Michael Tonry, leading authority on crime policy and author of “The Handbook on Crime and Punishment” noted, prison sentences in America are “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared.”
New trends in prison incarceration include privatizing the prison system itself and bribes to judges for higher incarceration rates. Cases in point: in Arizona, 9 of the state’s 10 prisons could end up being run by privately owned companies which split the profits with the state. In Pennsylvania, two judges (Judges Ciavarella and Conahan) and two other county officials were accused of taking $2.6 million for sending children to two facilities owned by Pittsburgh businessman Greg Zappala. By all accounts, our prison system is on a downward spiral and the integrity of our justice system itself is on the line.
With all the controversies swirling, I would not want to be Huckabee right now. But, the real focus of this controversy should be about our justice and prison systems: the effects on families, children, communities, and economies, and not about the political future or values of a governor who, after all, did something that America is no longer known for: showing clemency.
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*Original publication in HPR under the author’s former last name Shawcross and email. Updates to HPR’s website have inaccurately changed the name of the post publisher and date. Original post date listed above.
**Current contact email updated.