The Mike Huckabee record: An early advocate for criminal justice reform

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Meredith Shiner
·Political correspondent
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The Mike Huckabee record: An early advocate for criminal justice reform

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff in Waukee, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the eight years since Mike Huckabee left the governor’s mansion in Arkansas, the former state executive has become better known as “Huckabee,” the brand — television host, author, pundit, 2008 Iowa caucuses winner.

With his announcement Tuesday that he will launch his second presidential campaign, Huckabee, an ordained minister who won Iowa by galvanizing the state’s Christian right, could be viewed as just one of many conservatives jumping into the 2016 field and seeking to secure a grassroots base.

But one thing stands out and separates Huckabee from the field of perceived anti-establishment conservative candidates with whom he will be directly competing: Huckabee’s record as a governor, which is not nearly as hardline as many voters would imagine from getting to know him on television over the past few years.

For example, in 1997, Huckabee ushered through an expansion of government health care to low-income children called ARKids First, which became a model for other states. Throughout his career, he challenged the GOP’s orthodoxy on tax cuts at the top — he even backed raising gas taxes to pay for infrastructure spending, as well as increases to education spending. He advocated for a 2005 measure to extend in-state tuition levels at Arkansas colleges to undocumented children. Huckabee promoted all of these policy initiatives, sometimes to the chagrin of Arkansas Republicans at the time, under the banner of his background in the church.

For this current political moment, however, the most interesting line on the Huckabee gubernatorial résumé was his outspokenness on criminal justice reform issues in order to promote racial equality within his state.

Criminal justice reform has become a cause célèbre for politicians in both parties as they try to find the right talking points — and more important, policy solutions — to address ongoing protests that have played out in cities across America over the past year. From New York City to Ferguson to Baltimore, there is more scrutiny on the disproportionate incarceration of blacks in America than at any time in decades, if not ever, and certainly more than there was when Huckabee last ran for president, in 2008.

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Gov. Mike Huckabee holds a copy of his legislative agenda as he gives his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly in the House Chamber at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock in 2005. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

While governor, Huckabee granted more than 1,000 pardons and commutations in Arkansas. This both demonstrated a commitment to the Christian ideal of mercy and became a serious flashpoint during his 2008 presidential bid, when Mitt Romney aggressively went after Huckabee on this front. One case in particular was used against Huckabee to challenge the fitness of his judgment: that of Wayne Dumond, who was released by Huckabee and then went on to rape and murder again.

Back in 2007, Yahoo News’ Holly Bailey (then at Newsweek) asked then-candidate Huckabee about how his faith played a role in his view of commutations and pardons.

“I truly tried to look at every case, without regard to the respective person. If there were injustices, I tried to do everything I could to correct them, and for example, there were issues where I felt like African-American males were given harsher sentences, especially for drug crimes, than were upper-middle-class white kids who were arrested for the same thing,” Huckabee said. “My faith affected me there because I don’t think you should have two standards of justice — one where upper-middle-class white kids whose fathers can get them an attorney get to go to rehab with no criminal record, and [another where] a poor black kid from a single-parent home gets eight to 10 in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Now, did my faith affect that? I sure hope so. I’d like to think a person without faith would like to see justice equally meted out.”

But Huckabee’s views on equality don’t necessarily extend to all groups. While the governor in 1997 decried the church’s role in segregation and said that people of all faiths should “say never, never, never, never again will we be silent when people’s rights are at stake,“ in March 2015 he aggressively supported a since-modified religious-freedom law in Indiana that was changed because of its infringement on the rights of gays and lesbians in the state. Huckabee called the efforts to overturn the law a “manufactured crisis by the left” resulting from a “militant gay community” that would not stop until “there are no more churches” in America.

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Mike Huckabee fields questions from reporters at the Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Nonetheless, when it comes to criminal justice reform, Huckabee has been mostly consistent over a period of two decades and continues to speak out on the topic.

Last week, New York University’s Brennan Center for Criminal Justice published criminal justice reform essays from 19 leading scholars and politicians, including a laundry list of current and prospective 2016 candidates: Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Martin O’Malley, Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio. Huckabee had a chapter, too: “Treat Drug Addiction and Address Character.”

In his essay, Huckabee focused on the financial costs of the ever-growing, multibillion-dollar American prison system. But he also focused on social points that sound almost exactly like the ones he made a political lifetime ago.

“We are wasting human lives. I am deeply concerned about the rate at which young African-American males enter the prison system. As many African-American males have served in prison as have all whites both male and female, despite the significant population disparities between whites and blacks. While disproportionate crime rates are a factor, it is inescapable that we have a system where white kids from upper middle class families get probation and counseling, while young black kids get 108 years behind bars. Our system must have true justice and equality for all,” Huckabee wrote.

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Supporters’ signs are left over after Mike Huckabee, then a Republican presidential candidate, spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 9, 2008, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

“As a person of faith, I recognize the fragility of the human spirit. And I recognize that our justice system needs both punishment and redemption. From my time both as a governor and the job as pastor I held in my mid-20s to early 30s, I know about life-and-death, hope and pain, and crime and punishment. However, redemption is critical from both a moral and a pragmatic standpoint.”

It might not have been Huckabee’s intention, but with the timing of his White House bid, it seems that the most progressive piece of his political platform, and the one that sunk his campaign in 2008, could also be up for redemption in 2016.