Do Legal Pardon and Forgiveness Differ? How?

In January, 2012, Mr. Haley Barbour, former Republican Governor of Mississippi, granted legal pardon to over 200 prisoners as he left office. His rationale for the pardons was to show mercy in a *spirit of forgiveness* and to give each prisoner a second chance. news reported on Sunday, March 11, 2012 that the final group of prisoners will be released this week following the state highest court’s ruling that they can be released.

The pardons set off a firestorm of controversy. news describes an “outcry” from victims and their families. The state’s Attorney General challenged some of the pardons and there has been talk of trying to amend the governor’s power to grant such pardons.

The actions by the former governor raise the important question: What is the relationship between legal pardon and forgiveness, especially given that a spirit of forgiveness motivated the pardons? Legal pardon is always conducted by a third-party authority who is not a victim or someone connected to the victims. In other words, legal pardon is an attempt to be impartial. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is anything but impartial. It is a virtue, centered in goodness, precisely because it is the victim or someone who cares deeply for the victim who reduces resentment and offers compassion through his or her pain. It is not a detached action, as legal pardon must be to retain its objectivity.

Thus, the governor’s act of pardon actually cannot be in a spirit of forgiveness, which would imply that he is somehow a victim and therefore would have had to recuse himself in the decision.

We can see why the victims and their families are perplexed. Only they are the ones who can forgive. And, when we realize that legal pardon is no protection against recidivism, we can understand victims? fear of further injustice from at least some who have been pardoned.

An important lesson here is for people to realize how legal pardon and forgiveness differ. The former belongs to authorities and the latter to victims. Also, when an authority is contemplating legal pardon, it would be prudent, where possible, to discuss this with victims to ascertain their sense of safety. In other words, the issue of recidivism and the possibility of re-victimization need to be considered.

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Categories: Misconceptions, Our Forgiveness Blog, What Forgiveness is


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