Criminal pardons in Kentucky: Was justice served?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

As one of his last acts in office, outgoing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin issued more than 400 pardons to convicted criminals in the state. The majority of pardons were for low-level drug offenses, a relatively common move for elected officials interested in criminal justice reform. However, the now former governor caused outrage by including a small number of pardons for more severe, violent crimes. Bevin, a Republican, lost a tight reelection race to Democrat Andy Beshear last month.

One of the people pardoned was a convicted killer whose family had reportedly hosted a fundraiser for Bevin’s campaign, sparking accusations of corruption. Bevin has also been criticized for what some say is undue leniency to violent offenders — including a man convicted of raping a 9-year-old, a woman convicted of throwing her newborn baby in the garbage and a man found guilty of mudering and decapatating a female co-worker.

Bevin defended his pardon decisions, arguing that the criminal justice system is designed to “find the proper balance between justice for the victims and rehabilitation for the offenders.” He also identified specific cases where he believed convictions were the result of an unfair application of justice, and he strongly denied that political donations had influenced his decision making.

Why there’s debate

Bevin’s pardons have received broad criticism from some of the most powerful people in the state. Kentucky’s state Senate president called them “extreme.” Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky in the U.S. Senate, said the decisions were “completely inappropriate.” In addition to accusations he allowed political favors to sway at least one choice, Bevin has been criticized for granting forgiveness to criminals convicted of horrifying crimes.

Criminal justice reform advocates have taken issue with the response to Bevin’s pardons, which they say has been too focused on a small number of cases with gruesome details that aren’t representative of the bulk of the offenses pardoned. The intense condemnation of Bevin’s decisions, some fear, might make other leaders hesitant to exercise their power to combat mass incarceration.

What’s next

Several prominent members of the Kentucky state legislature have called for an investigation into the pardons, although no official probe has been announced.



Bevin’s haphazard application of his pardon power was a miscarriage of justice

“Governor, you relied on false information and disregarded victims. The law says victims have a voice. You owe the people of Kentucky and victims of crime an apology, and, more importantly, an explanation.” — Tom Handy, Lexington Herald Leader

Pardons put too much power in one person’s hands

“One person should not have the authority to pardon convicted criminals at a whim. … For one, it’s not fair. There are people sitting in jail cells across the commonwealth for far less heinous crimes than what some of those pardoned by Bevin committed. Secondly, it creates distrust in the system.” — Daniel Suddeath, Richmond (Ky.) Register

The pardon power can be a force for good, but Bevin abused it

“The power of the pardon can be a helpful tool to right wrongs and correct the failings of the criminal justice system. It is also a powerful opportunity to show mercy, and while some of Bevin’s pardons fell within this broad definition, many others were highly unusual — and questionable” — Elliot Hannon, Slate

Bevin cemented his legacy as a loathed figure in Kentucky history

“It’s only been a few days since Matt Bevin left office, and more and more people are finally seeing who he really is. We knew he was a mercurial narcissist with little respect for the people or traditions of Kentucky. Now we know he is one who has put the citizens of this state in jeopardy with his use of the gubernatorial pardon to free killers and child rapists and others who have broken our laws. “ — Joseph Gerth, Louisville Courier Journal

Pardoning the family member of a fundraiser is inexcusable

I’m very pro-pardon generally for obvious reasons, but the idea that they are being purchased with donations is shockingly corrupt.” — MSNBC host Chris Hayes


Bevin is facing criticism for doing what most governors are afraid to do

“Most governors barely pardon at all. And that’s the problem. Moreover, pardons have two purposes: to correct an injustice, and to show forgiveness and mercy. A guilty plea or overwhelming evidence of guilt aren’t incompatible with the latter.” — Washington Post columnist Radley Balko

Americans are too focused on severe punishment as the only response to crime

“Only problematic leniency generates this level of collective outrage. Never needless cruelty.” — Fordham University criminal law professor John Pfaff

The response shows why large-scale criminal justice reform may be impossible

“At the end of the day, though, it’s simple: People are uncomfortable with reducing sentences for violent crimes. So mass incarceration will continue.” — Vox reporter German Lopez

Bevin was correct to pardon people he saw as being wrongly convicted

“Prosecutors don’t like to be second guessed & so are criticizing Bevin’s pardons. But clemency is a needed corrective for miscarriages of justice.” — New York University law professor Rachel Barkow

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Timothy D. Easley/AP