From the National Rifle Association to the Brady Campaign, it’s difficult to find anyone who would weigh in on the side of allowing a convicted armed robber to own a firearm, much less chair a gun company’s board. Thus, it doesn’t seem surprising that handgun maker Smith & Wesson has come under fire for its association with James Joseph Minder. Minder, who stepped down as the company’s chairman late last month, spent the better part of the 1950s and ’60s in prison for a string of armed robberies in Michigan.
After being released from prison in 1969, Minder earned a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan and started a nonprofit company that worked with at-risk youth, developmentally disabled adults, and parents wanting to adopt foster children. By all accounts, he lived an exemplary life and earned a second chance. Indeed, he’s getting one and will remain on the company’s board. The markets seem to agree with the company’s judgment: Smith & Wesson’s stock is actually up a bit since Minder’s past made front-page news.
If a company and the market seem so willing to give Minder and new start, why shouldn’t society? Nearly all developed countries, in fact, would have done so already: In Australia, New Zealand, much of Canada, and the entire E.U. offenses short of rape and murder are considered “spent” after a set period and no longer need be mentioned on job applications or anywhere else. (Agencies and companies involved in sensitive national- and homeland-security work can still access them.)
Minder’s crimes–armed robberies that made newspaper headlines–are too serious for the easy forgiveness granted in Europe. The entire system of automatic forgiveness for serious adult offenders, indeed, seems to violate common sense and good moral judgment. Indeed, the moral laxness it implies is probably one of the many reasons why most of Europe has higher crime rates than the U.S. Sending a clear message that crime does not pay means that a majority of criminals, even those who remain out of serious trouble, should never regain their rights to vote, own firearms, receive welfare benefits, or work in most government jobs.
But the relative harshness of American punishment–U.S. criminals serve sentences four times longer than those in other developed democracies and lose more benefits after release–means that there should be some method for forgiveness. Indeed, American law does provide one: the pardon. Unlike the automatic “spending” of offenses, pardons are individualized. They typically require affirmative proof that the person seeking the pardon has lived an exemplary life.
For the most part, however, pardons have ceased to be an option. A series of corruption scandals (some governors literally sold pardons) and a desire to appear tough on crime nearly eliminated pardons in much of the country. In all, reports Joan Petersilia, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, only a tiny fraction of one percent of criminals ever get one. Many governors never grant them.
Mercy for the truly reformed alone provides a compelling case for granting more pardons, but it’s not the only reason pardons deserve new consideration. If pardons became more common, released convicts–two-thirds of whom end up back behind bars–would gain a new incentive to behave. Once a convict finishes a prison sentence American society currently provides no additional incentives for good behavior or disincentives for bad non-criminal behavior. Criminals tend to lack self-control and face no disincentives to get drunk, have promiscuous sex, tell lies, and gamble. Were pardons and the attendant full restoration of civil rights a real option for offenders, at least some would see the offer of a pardon as an incentive to stay away from the types of morally questionable but legal behavior that leads to crime. Some governors might even experiment with “pardon contracts”: Such contracts would allow convicts who adhere to a strict moral code–typical provisions might include no drinking, regular community-service, and restitution to victims–to receive a “presumptive pardon” after a series of hearings and a set period of exemplary behavior.
There is no reason why a good man like James Minder shouldn’t run a firearms company and there is a good reason for society to think about forgiving him altogether.
–Eli Lehrer is associate editor of The American Enterprise and a homeland-security consultant for a Fortune 500 company.