Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has managed to make a reasonable commutation decision look thoroughly corrupt….which it very well might be.
Barbour suspended the life sentences of Gladys and Jamie Scott, who were in prison for an armed robbery that got them a grand total of $11. This is an appropriate use of his power, for the girls almost certainly were given an unjustly harsh sentence when they were sent to prison over a decade ago despite having no prior offenses and netting such a paltry haul. His timing is suspect, however. Barbour, a potential G.O.P. presidential candidate, stuck his foot in his mouth when he told a Slate interviewer that he didn’t recall a lot of that unpleasant racism stuff going on in his old Mississippi home town growing up, an odd comment for a man who lived in a racially segregated area known for, among other things, a penchant for lynching blacks. Barbour has been furiously backpedaling ever since, and the double commutation looks a lot like a political deal that he backpedaled into. As soon as the decision was announced, the NAACP leaped to the microphones to praise the Governor. Its president, Ben Jealous, declared,
“This is a shining example of how governors should use their commutation powers.”
Hmmm. Does Jealous mean commuting the sentences of Africa Americans when he says “this”? Commuting the sentences of two women in behalf of whom the NAACP has been vocal in support? Why does the race of the sisters matter at all, if the sentence was excessive? If race isn’t the reason for the release, why is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which just a week ago was condemning Barbour for racial insensitivity because of his warm, fuzzy memories of life before civil rights, now saying he’s a “shining example”?
If Barbour is granting the commutation because the Scotts are black, that’s unethical—unfair , biased and irresponsible, an abuse of power. If he granted it as part of a quid pro quo bargain with the NAACP, it is more unethical still. “Sure, Ben, I’ll release these two felons who I really believe should stay in jail, if your organization will get off my back about my dumb remarks to Slate and say I’m really a swell guy.” A politician should not be using human lives and the decisions of the justice systems as barter for career advancement. Yet this seems to be what Haley Barbour has done, with the assistance of the NAACP.
Even that, however, is not the worst of it. For Barbour’s commutation order says “Gladys Scott’s release is conditioned on her donating one of her kidneys to her sister.” You read that right: the youngest of the Scott sisters is being extorted by the State of Mississippi to give up a kidney to avoid staying in prison for the rest of her life. That is an outrageous perversion of the Governor’s power, and it has far-reaching effects.
“While Governor Barbour probably meant nothing nefarious by this decision, what he did was unethical and possibly illegal,” Michael Shapiro, chief of organ transplantation at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, told Reuters. “He is unaware of the procedures of transplantation that include making sure donors are not coerced.” In addition, “if either party could be turned down for medical concerns, the transplant team would feel pressured to continue with the transplant or send them back to prison,” Dr. Shapiro continued. “It is a position they should not be put in.”
And it gets worse still. backpedaling once again, Barbour’s staff explained that it was really Gladys who suggested the kidney transplant angle. As Barbour noted in his commutation statement, “Jamie Scott’s medical condition [she receives daily dialysis] creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi.”
Now I get the picture: in Mississippi, you can buy your release from prison for a kidney, if it translates into budgetary savings. Gee, I didn’t think that prisoners could do that—trade valuable assets in exchange for early release from judicially determined punishment for serious crimes. In fact, I’m sure they can’t, at least not legally. If the rules have changed in Mississippi, there will be a flood of new organs ready for needy donors, followed by a less-welcome flood of released felons hitting the streets.
“If the sister belongs in prison, then she should be allowed to donate and return to prison, and if she doesn’t belong in prison, then she should have her sentence commuted whether or not she is a donor,” Arthur Caplan, chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania astutely told the Washington Post.
Allow me to summarize: with this commutation, Gov. Barbour has apparently…
- Used his powers to convert human lives into political currency,
- Made two commutations on the basis of race rather than justice, to end inconvenient (but well-earned) criticism from a black advocacy organization, whose favor can apparently be bought,
- Extorted a kidney from a young women in order to reap budget dividends…or, in the alternative..
- Agreed to accept a prisoner’s proffered kidney in exchange for granting early release,
- Made a deal that places the medical profession in a potential ethical dilemma, should doctors later determine that Gladys’s kidney will not be as safe as it should be to transplant into her sister. If they allow the kidney to be donated as the commutation requires, then Jamie is at risk. If it isn’t, Gladys goes back to prison.
I have to hand it to Gov. Barbour; before this situation, I would have said that it was impossible to make an otherwise reasonable use of the commutation power appear so cynical, corrupt, exploitive and irresponsible. But Haley Barbour was equal to the challenge.
Now here is one more question to spoil your sleep:
Does this mean that he isn’t presidential material, or, as I am beginning to fear, that he is?