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.