By Mary Slosson
(Reuters) - Mississippi's new Republican governor backs tightening the rules on pardons after his predecessor, one-time presidential hopeful Haley Barbour, sparked controversy by granting clemency to more than 200 convicts in his final days in office, his spokesman said on Thursday.
Governor Phil Bryant, who served as Barbour's lieutenant governor and who took office on Tuesday, would support a state constitutional amendment to tweak the governor's clemency powers, spokesman Mick Bullock said in a statement.
"Governor Phil Bryant has asked Senator Michael Watson, Chairman for the Senate Constitution Committee, to review the current law as it regards to pardons, how it allows the governor to make these type of decisions, and whether we need to address the wording better in a constitutional amendment," Bullock said.
"The governor believes a constitutional amendment is the right way to address such an important issue," Bullock said, without elaborating further.
Barbour has been under fire since it became public early this week that he had ordered the release of four convicted murderers and an armed robber who had worked at the governor's mansion. Then on Tuesday, his last day in office, he granted clemency or suspended sentences to more than 200 other convicts.
A day later, a Mississippi judge barred the state from releasing any of the newly pardoned prisoners who remained in jail, but not before the five had already been set free.
The judge acted hours after Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sought the injunction to prevent the early release of clemency recipients.
The judge's order blocked the release of 21 inmates still serving time when the clemency was announced and who remained incarcerated. It also ordered the five who had been freed to appear for a hearing later in January.
MOST OUT OF JAIL WHEN CLEMENCY ANNOUNCED
Barbour's office has said only a minority of those convicts who received clemency were incarcerated at the time of the move, with 90 percent of them no longer in prison when the pardons were granted.
Barbour had said that the pardons were intended to allow the inmates "to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses as well as hunt and vote," and that his decisions were typically based on the recommendation of the Parole Board.
But the pardons generated a firestorm of controversy about how much power a governor should have to pardon criminals convicted of serious crimes.
"No governor should have unfettered discretion and authority to grant pardons," said former assistant U.S. Attorney General Jimmy Gurule, now a law professor at Notre Dame.
"If it is determined that the pardons were granted illegally, in violation of the state constitution, then they are void, the sentences should be reinstated, and the convicts rearrested."
Barbour pardoned more people on his last day of office than his four most recent predecessors combined, according to statistics provided by the Mississippi Secretary of State's office.
One of those pardoned was the brother of former National Football League quarterback Brett Favre. Earnest Scott Favre was convicted in 1996 of driving while intoxicated after a vehicle he was driving crashed and killed his best friend.
Also included were four men convicted of murder and another convicted of armed robbery, all serving life sentences, who worked at the governor's mansion cleaning vehicles, waiting tables and performing other domestic duties.
(Reporting By Robbie Ward and Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)