I beg your pardon? Haley Barbour's criminal justice controversy

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News that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour handed out more than 200 pardons on his way out of office has created an uproar in the state, from expressions of shock and outrage to legal challenges. Adding to the controversy has been Barbour's own reluctance to say a word about his decision.

The discussion has centered around the fact that several of those pardoned had committed violent crimes, including murder. Barbour's office today finally released a statement that clarifies some of the facts about the pardons, noting that only 26 individuals receiving a pardon were actually in prison, and of those, 13 received a medical release because they suffer from a chronic illness and thus "are not threats to society," but will remain under supervision.

Granting pardons to those who were no longer in prison was a way of giving those reformed criminals a fresh start, the statement explains. "The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote," it says.

There are still a lot of questions surrounding Barbour's decision, including why he waited until the 11th hour to issue the pardons, why he issued so many of them at once, and why he's keeping quiet about it. But it has undoubtedly gotten people talking about the criminal justice system, and that's definitely a positive outcome.

Barbour's actions have sparked a strong response because they challenge the commonly held position that criminals are deserving of punishment, even those who have paid their debt to society by completing their prison sentence. Andrew Skotnicki, a religious studies professor who has written extensively on the relationship between Catholic teaching and criminal justice, believes that quest for vengeance rather than rehabilitation is the cause of our nation's current prison problem.

“The average American — and I am sad to even say this, but the average Catholic — wants these people to suffer,” Skotnicki told me in an interview in 2010. “And the worst part of it is that it has nothing to do with the Gospel of Our Lord, who went out of his way to choose the people that society had rejected.”

Of course, there's a big different between believing in redemption and releasing a potentially dangerous criminal into society. The Catholic belief in protecting the common good means we have to keep the public safe, and if Barbour did release any prisoner who poses a threat to anyone, it was an irresponsible move. Decisions like these should be made cautiously, with plenty of input from others in the justice system, and not done hastily in a last-minute rush before leaving office.

But for those who had truly undergone their own period of reconciliation, spiritual or otherwise, the pardons are a welcome form of absolution. And for those offenders who haven't yet reached that point on the penitential journey, it is an encouraging sign that the sins of the past can indeed be forgiven.