January 24, 2012 3:20:00 PM
By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers might ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment limiting the governor's power to pardon convicted criminals, the chairman of the Senate Constitution Committee said Monday.
Speaking at a press forum in Jackson, Republican Sen. Michael Watson of Pascagoula said one option would be to ban any governor from pardoning people convicted of certain crimes such as murder, sex crimes or crimes against children.
Another option would be to allow a governor to grant a pardon only if a clemency board recommends it, Watson said.
"We want to hear from everyone to make sure we don't do this knee-jerk, to make sure we've got all the information in front of us to make a wise decision," Watson said.
He spoke at a luncheon sponsored by the Capitol press corps and Mississippi State University's Stennis Institute of Government.
Pardons have received intense scrutiny the past two weeks. In the final days before Republican Haley Barbour ended his second term as governor on Jan. 10, he gave full pardons to 198 people, including at least one convicted murderer who had been denied release by the Parole Board.
Barbour said 189 of those he pardoned were already out of prison, some of them for decades.
He granted some sort of reprieve to 26 inmates who were in custody -- 10 full pardons; 13 medical releases; one suspension of sentence; one conditional, indefinite suspension of sentence; and one conditional clemency.
Barbour's successor, fellow Republican Phil Bryant, has said he doesn't intend to issue any pardons while he's governor. He has also ended a decades-old program that allowed violent inmates to work as trusties at the Governor's Mansion. It's a longstanding tradition for governors, as they leave office, to grant pardons or suspended sentences to the mansion trusties, who cook, clean, serve food and do other odd jobs.
Some lawmakers want to limit gubernatorial pardon powers through state laws or constitutional amendments to regulate the actions of governors who serve after Bryant.
The governor's pardon powers are spelled out in the state constitution, and Watson said it would take a constitutional amendment to limit the list of convicts eligible for pardons. Any constitutional amendment would have to go on the statewide ballot for approval.
An amendment can be put on the ballot by lawmakers or by the initiative process through petitions by registered voters.
A governor would not have to approve an amendment before it can go on the ballot, but Watson said that as a courtesy to Bryant, he intends to stay in touch with the new governor about any proposals.
Democratic Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis is proposing some changes in state law -- not the constitution -- to limit the pardon power. He wants to ban any governor from issuing a pardon during the final 90 days in office.
Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat in statewide office, has challenged Barbour's pardons in court. Barbour has said he thinks Hood is playing politics.
Watson said Monday that he has also heard some people blaming Republicans for the pardons.
"I've heard a wide range of the political football type, you know, 'Let's hammer the Republicans for this,' which to me is ridiculous. It just doesn't make sense," Watson said. "This is the decision of one man. He did not do it as a Republican. He didn't do this as a Democrat. He did it as, this is what he thought is the right thing to do. That wasn't done on party lines. So, for someone to take that and use it politically just makes me sick."
Barbour said Jan. 13 that his Christian faith teaches redemption and he believes pardons offer reformed inmates a second chance in life. He also said he trusts the five former Governor's Mansion trusties so much that he allowed them to watch his grandchildren as the youngsters played.
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