01/19/2012 05:32 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Why Did Governor Haley Barbour's Pardons Cause Such A Backlash?

What is it about former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's pardons that irk us so much?

It can't be because 189 people who were already out of prison and obeying the law will have better job prospects and restored civil rights because he pardoned them. Or that the 13 sick and dying prisoners he released early will now get to recover or pass away at home, with their families nearby for financial and emotional support. Is it that 10 others -- including some murderers who were safe and reformed enough that Governor Barbour trusted them around his own family every day -- will now get to reunite with their families, get jobs, and pay taxes like the rest of us?

These are the consequences of Governor Barbour's pardons, which must have inspired his eloquent and heartfelt defense of his decisions in the Washington Post this week. Governor Barbour's defense addresses our safety concerns and invites us to join him in a communal act of forgiveness and mercy. His pardons remind us of values we cherish and champion: that people can change, punishment can lead to reformation, second chances can be earned and deserved, and forgiveness is available to all of us.

So, I ask again: why have Barbour's pardons -- and pardons in general -- created such a backlash?

The last 30 years of sentencing policy may provide an answer. Thirty years ago, America's approach to punishment shifted. We rejected the notion that a criminal could be rehabilitated, and many states and the federal government began abolishing parole eligibility. They replaced it with sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that deprive judges of the power to tailor sentences to fit individuals and their unique crimes.

Getting "tough on crime" became popular among the public and politicians alike. In election years, Congress created more one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences or increased the length of many of those already on the books. Whoever we most feared -- drug offenders, immigrants, consumers of child pornography -- became the next target of a long mandatory prison sentence. Governments also began curtailing prisoners' options for challenging their convictions or sentences, so that even legitimate legal claims could not be brought into courts. Our lust to punish -- and punish harshly -- has cost us dearly. We are the world's top jailer; we now pay over $60 billion each year to lock up 2.3 million people.

Pardons clash with this recent history and cause a kind of philosophical whiplash. They shouldn't. We are also a people who claim to be predominantly Christian and believe in mercy and redemption. Christian or otherwise, most of us extol second chances. With punishments as draconian as ours have become, second chances can literally be the difference between life and death, being an active or absent parent, prosperity or poverty. The pardon power is often the only remedy for those who have been unfairly or excessively punished in the harsh and inflexible sentencing system we have spent 30 years building. Pardons and commutations can correct some of these injustices. They grant forgiveness when, sadly, we forget to be merciful. Our founding fathers included the pardon power in our Constitution for precisely this reason. They betted on us going too far in our zeal to punish and created pardons as a safeguard for those on the receiving end of our excess.

With 30 years of unwise punishment policies to repair, the pardon power is more important now than ever before. Governor Barbour was right to use and defend it. Other governors and President Obama can live up to our nation's highest and best ideals -- doing justice and showing mercy -- by following his example.