On Bevin’s Pardons and Prison Abolitionism

On Bevin’s Pardons and Prison Abolitionism December 23, 2019

Former Kentucky governor Republican Matt Bevin issued 428 pardons or commutations just before he left office. There was immediate outrage on twitter and elsewhere, but I was left unsettled. I lean toward prison abolitionism. I see the words “hundreds of pardons” as a good thing. I understand that there are some people who cannot or should not be on the streets, but I don’t think that’s the case for the vast majority of people in our prisons.

Countries like Sweden have prisons that function drastically differently from our punitive, broken prison system, and yet they have both lower crime rates and lower recidivism rates. We imprison more people than any country in the world, and yet call ourselves “the land of the free.” The system is fundamentally broken.

So when I heard that Bevin issued 428 pardons before he left office, I was confused by the level of outrage. I read through a list of some of the most egregious criminal she pardoned, and I was left nonplussed. Yes, some of them were extremely violent criminals, but many of their crimes occurred decades ago—and in some cases while they were children. Do we not believe in rehabilitation? Besides, the vast majority of those Bevin pardoned—336 out of 428—were low-level drug offenders. Were we to be outraged at at this simply because Bevin was a Republican?

Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 330 federal inmates in his own final days in office. During his eight years in office, he pardoned or commuted the sentences of nearly 2,000 individuals.

I am not here for outrage over a governor issuing hundreds of pardons. If anything, we need governors to start issuing more pardons. And, further, I worry that outrage over pardons as pardons obscures something else. See, there actually were problems with what Bevin did. It’s just that the problem is not that Bevin issued pardons—or even that he issued over 400 of them. We need more pardons, but we do not need more corruption, more disbelief of child sex abuse victims, or more racial bias—all of which were present in Bevins’ pardons and commutations.

To start with, one of Becins’ pardons appears to be motivated by political fundraisers. Bevin pardoned Patrick Baker, a convicted murderer whose family members recently held large-dollar fundraisers for Bevin. When Bevin was asked why he pardoned Baker but not his two accomplices, Bevin said the evidence against Baker had been sketchy. But when you look at the actual record, this simply is not the case—and it was Bevins who pulled the actual trigger. His accomplices were convicted on lesser charges, but they are still in prison.

Pardoning this man and not his accomplices very definitely makes this pardon look like it was motivated by financial favors, and if there’s anything we don’t need in our prison systems, it’s more corruption.

Second—and there was a lot of talk about this early on—Bevins pardoned several individuals convicted of molesting children. I may tend toward prison abolitionism, but I also don’t think child molesters and other sexual abusers should be set free on the streets just like that. We need new systems in place and we don’t have them yet.

And then there are his comments. Bevins took to the media to argue that one of the convicted sex offenders he pardoned was innocent because his victim’s hymen was intact. Yes, he said hymen. The victim was a 9-year-old girl. Bevins wasn’t pardoning these men because he believes our criminal justice system and prison industrial complex is broken and that these men had paid for their crimes already; he didn’t believe they did it.

Bevins is a homeschooling father of nine children. I grew up in a large homeschooling family, in the same right-wing evangelical milieu Bevins inhabits. My family was even active in state and local politics. I almost feel like I know Bevins. And you know what? The evangelical homeschooling community in which I grew up was rarely better at anything than it was at defending sex offenders. I wish this weren’t true, but it was; I watched it happen.

I may take the time to write about this more comprehensively later this week, because it matters. Bevins pardoned this child sex offender in particular because he believes myths and lies about child sexual abuse and, most fundamentally, because he does not believe children. This is abhorrent and horrific, and is a different question from our broken prison industrial complex, prison abolitionism, and whether pardons in general are a good idea.

So, first, Bevins is corrupt. Second, Bevins does not believe children. What else does an examination of Bevins’ individual pardons—rather than a knee-jerk reaction against the idea of hundreds of pardons—reveal?

Of the 336 drug offenders Bevins pardoned, 95% were white. In contrast, Kentucky’s overall prison population is only 64% white. Why, then, were nearly all of the drug offenders Bevins pardoned white? According to an analysis by The Courier Journal, “while 8% of a potential pool of white drug offenders received a commutation, only 1.6% of a potential pool of minority drug offenders got a similar break.” When this analysis broke, Bevins’ team immediately claimed that race did not play a role in their selection of which drug offenders to pardon.

Huh. How about that.

There are important conversations to be had about corruption, about the lies that give cover to child sex offenders, and about the racial imbalance in Bevins’ drug offender pardons. I worry that these conversations are less likely to happen if the news media focuses on the sheer number of pardons, as though pardons themselves are a problem, in a country with a prison industrial complex that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

The problem here is not that Bevins issued hundreds of pardons. The problem is Bevinss’ corruption, his failure to believe victims of child sex abuse, and the racial bias present in Bevins’ selection of whose sentence to commute. As we discuss these problems—and they are serious problems—we need to take care that we don’t engage in sensationalism that contributes to a public perception that pardons are bad and prisons are good.

Prisons are not good.

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