Haley Barbour Pardons: Why Were the Forgiven So Disproportionately White?

Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 2012

The sheer number of pardons handed out by outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour—over 200—left many Mississippians in shock. What may not have been so surprising is that white prisoners were four times more likely than black ones to get the gubernatorial benefit of the doubt.

Out of a total of 222 acts of clemency given by Barbour during his tenure—156 of which Attorney General Jim Hood has subsequently argued may be constitutionally invalid because of public notice violations—two-thirds benefited white prisoners. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the state’s prison population is black.

On its face, the disparities immediately raise questions about whether the Mississippi pardon system is inherently racist. Some critics have called on the US Justice Department to investigate Barbour’s pardons on the racial disparities alone, since such broad inequalities could point to a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

At the same time, the racial pattern of Barbour’s pardons, justice experts say, offers insight into how parole lawyers, governors, even presidents, may view factors like rehabilitation and remorse differently depending on the race of the convict, where opinions may be based more on subtle cultural factors than outright prejudice.

A recent investigation by ProPublica showed that white convicts in the federal justice system were four times more likely to receive a presidential pardon than black convicts—a trend that has continued under President Obama, who is African American.

In most such cases, including Barbour’s, chief executives have denied any racial bias, noting that the pardon boards and attorneys do not note a person’s race on their written recommendations to the executive.


If they key pardon players—judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and, ultimately, the chief executive—are for the most part white, cultural ignorance could come into play. Rather than relying on any kind of conscious bias, experts say, a pardon officer may misread the level of remorse exhibited by a black pardon applicant for cultural reasons, given that African-Americans may express contrition in different ways than whites.

“To the extent that [pardon boards] allow their staff to be making judgments into somebody’s attitude—that’s an entry point for bias,” Jack Glaser, a discrimination expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told ProPublica. “It’s not that it’s a reflection of racial biases, because there are also cultural attitudes. White people understand white people better. They may not understand the outlooks of minority people as well.”


Despite anger about the pardons, few in Mississippi believe Barbour acted on the basis of racial prejudice. Only last summer, the NAACP called Barbour a “shining example” for freeing two African-American women serving life sentences for a robbery that yielded $11. But offering at least one hint into how he weighed the pardon applications before him, Barbour declined to officially pardon the women, which would have restored their voting rights, saying they didn’t show sufficient remorse for their crimes.


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  • Anonymous

    People have this misconception that in the deep South innocent black men are still being rounded up and imprisoned for no reason other than racism. The problem is that if you look at incarceration rates per 100,000 individuals, Iowa incarcerates 2818 black men per 100,000 versus Mississippi which jails 1040 (less than half that figure) per 100,000. Black males are incarerated at a disproportionate rate, but that rate is much lower in the “backwards, racist, bigoted” South than it is in the “progressive, humanitarian” ultra-liberal East and North.

    *Bureau of the Census data, Correctional Populations in the United States 

    •  To Hirschibold:
       Although i don’t adhere to your philosophy, but, you’re right on this one. Also, the south actually has better race relations than the  ” progressive north”.  Thanks!!

      • Anonymous


  • Most of Barbour’s pardons were for those who were out of prison and off probation.  Of course they were going to be disproportionately white.  How many black convicts can behave long enough to finish their probation?  This is why we call it “life on the installment plan.”

    One fanciful theory to explain the disparity is the “wealth gap.”  Whites can afford the money and time for the pardon application, black’s can’t.  The problem with that argument is that Mississippi’s white ex-cons aren’t all rich.

  • Anonymous

    many more men than women got padons even though women make up a larger percentage of the population, plus way too many right handed people were pardoned over left handed people.
     you know I am right, do not make me use all caps AGAIN!

  • “for freeing two African-American women serving life sentences for a robbery that yielded $11”
    More lies just like the black guy that got years in prison for stealing 7 cents neglecting the fact he put an elderly man in the hopital to steal all the money he had on him which was 7 cents
    Pardons usually go to those who can avoid bad behavior for a few years and would have a clean record without one crime

  • .

    If you’ve ever seen the jury pool in much of Mississippi then you’d know that blacks received their “pardons” on the front end via ‘jury nullification’. OJ knows what I’m talkin’ about.

    • OJ still managed to find his way into jail.  He wanted to find justice and somehow I think he did.

  • Oil Can Harry

    Someone inform the author that as long as blacks give zero votes to the Republicans they have no right to complain about the actions of GOP pols. 

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, the blacks split their vote 95 to 5 in favor of Dems in every local, state and federal election now & forever but God help the Republicans if they don’t treat blacks like their number one political constituency.

      • To JackKrak:
         Well sir if the Repubs. would reach out to Blacks and Latinos, then they would get more of their vote. Repubs., alot of times either scorn or ignore these communites, which is a big mistake. For these communities combine represent
        one-third the U.S. pop. Think about that. Bye now!!
        P.S. By the way, i’m a registered Repub. myself. Thanks again.

        • That’s right.  If the Republicans reached out to blacks a little harder, they might soar from getting 1% of the black vote to 2% of the black vote.  And if they reached out to Hispanics a little harder, they might get a whole rip roarin’ 35% of it. 

          (Note:  I know you’re oblivious.  This reaches a ten on the sarcasm meter).

          The only problem is, you need 51% to win most elections. 

          The only other problem is, the more you pander to blacks and Hispanics, the more whites you drive away. 

  • Pardoning someone for a robbbery that ‘yielded 11 dollars’ makes it justifiable??
    Because it only yielded 11 dollars??
    The profitablility of a crime does not measure the damage or the morality of the act. 
    The media is so sick in the reasoning and subtle messages it sends regarding race and criminality. 
    Many robberies for less than 20 dollars have resulted in the deaths of victims– would a take of $50,000 made the motives more understandable, or just less pardonable??