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Seattle shootings may reduce pardons and commutations

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
Maurice Clemmons had his 95-year sentence commuted by Mike Huckabee, then-governor of Arkansas.
Maurice Clemmons had his 95-year sentence commuted by Mike Huckabee, then-governor of Arkansas.
  • Seattle shooting suspect Marice Clemmons had his prison sentence commuted
  • The Clemmons case could push governors away from issuing clemencies, experts say
  • Willie Horton prison furlough was said to be a factor in Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential race
  • Some attorneys say clemency can help bring justice and alleviate crowded prisons

(CNN) -- The ambush-style shootings of four police officers in Seattle allegedly by a suspect whose prison sentence had been commuted likely will affect the way states approach clemency, according to professors, criminologists and attorneys.

"For many governors, the quick response is, 'Huckabee is getting all this attention, so this is the last place I want to be'," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research group that studies sentencing trends. "They are going to be much more reluctant."

In 2000, then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee commuted the nearly 100-year prison sentence of Maurice Clemmons, the suspect in the shootings, according to documents from the Arkansas Department of Community Correction. Huckabee's action made Clemmons eligible for parole.

Clemmons was 17 when he went to prison on a host of charges, including bringing a gun to school and robbery. Huckabee cited Clemmons' young age at the time of his crimes as a reason for commuting his sentence. He has also said his decision was based on the parole board's recommendations.

Clemency, the ability to mitigate a sentence, is a power held by the executive branch. The practice provides presidents and governors a final check on the judicial system.

They can grant pardons, removing both punishment and guilt. Or they can commute sentences, reducing the time served but leaving the charges intact. Commutations are often granted to sick inmates or prisoners demonstrating good behavior.

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  • Shootings
  • Crime
  • Seattle
  • Mike Huckabee

After the 1980s, clemency became a target of the tough-on-crime movement, criminologists say. They say it resulted in a decline in pardons and commutations -- a contrast from earlier in the century when some governors were applauded for commuting hundreds of sentences during the Christmas holiday.

"Politically, it's just too risky today to use your discretion to reduce someone's punishment, especially in commutation," said Jefferson Holcomb, a professor of government studies at Appalachian State University.

According to criminologists, one of the most infamous cases that steered some governors and presidents away from issuing commutations involved Willie Horton, a Massachusetts inmate who raped a woman after being released in a weekend furlough program supported by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis. In 1988, the Republican Party used Horton in ads opposing Dukakis, who was then the Democratic presidential nominee. Political scientists believe the perception that Dukakis was lenient on crime helped undermine his election bid.

In some media outlets -- online and on television -- Clemmons has been dubbed "Huckabee's Willie Horton," raising questions on how the Seattle shootings will affect Huckabee if he decides to run for president in 2012.

The Horton incident also resulted in policy changes in the corrections industry. Herbert Hoelter, co-founder of National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a group that helps file petitions for clemencies, says furlough programs became unpopular after the Horton incident, even though studies have shown they can be effective in helping prisoners re-integrate into society.

"Furloughs used to be popular, but trying to get a furlough now is like trying to avoid a root canal," Hoelter said. "It just doesn't happen."

As the prison population continues to grow, some advocacy organizations and experts argue appropriate clemencies can help manage overcrowding. But experts say the high-profile nature of the Seattle shootings will likely be a setback, just as the Horton case was a generation ago.

At the federal level, the Department of Justice's Office of Pardon Attorney shows a decline in federal clemencies. Experts say presidents and governors usually wait until the end of their terms to grant them because of potential controversy.

"The incentive is not to do it if you want a political future," said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas. Victim advocacy groups often criticize lawmakers and push for harsher sentences when a parolee commits a crime or when a clemency goes awry. David Davis, executive director at the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children, says when sentences are shortened, some victims and communities fear the person will commit another offense.

"The Clemmons case underscores the importance of using risk assessment tools to inform release decisions at every point in the system from bail to clemency," said Margaret Love, a U.S. pardon attorney under George Bush and Bill Clinton.

But some say the focus should be on Clemmons' criminal history after his release instead of the commuted sentence that occurred nine years ago.

Still, Huckabee said in a statment on the conservative news Web site

"I take full responsibility for my actions of nine years ago. I acted on the facts presented to me in 2000. If I could have possibly known what Clemmons would do nine years later, I obviously would have made a different decision. But if the same file was presented to me today, I would have likely made the same decision."

A year after his sentence was commuted, Clemmons returned to prison after violating his parole. He was paroled again in 2004. Clemmons, 37, had a long rap sheet in Washington and Arkansas, according to authorities and documents. He was accused of child rape and assaulting a police officer in May and had been released on $150,000 bail five days before the shootings, according to court records.

A free man on Sunday, Clemmons walked into a coffee shop and shot the four officers, police say.

They were identified as Sgt. Mark Renninger, 39; Officer Ronald Owens, 37; Officer Tina Griswold, 40; and Officer Greg Richards, 42. All were parents.

Police said Clemmons slipped away from a home in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood Sunday night before police surrounded the residence for about 12 hours. He was missing from the home when investigators moved in Monday morning.

Authorities found Clemmons on Tuesday. Pierce County Sheriff's Department pokesman Ed Troyer said the suspect was carrying a weapon taken from one of the dead officers. Clemmons had suffered a bullet wound to his abdomen in Sunday's shooting, police said.

Clemmons challenged an officer and the officer shot him, police said.

"It's a shame given there are so many cases, which we never hear about because they are commuted and don't go on to commit crimes," said Natasha Frost, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University. "One bad case can change the way the whole system works."