Tragedy in Tacoma

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a gunman entered a Tacoma coffeehouse and, in cold blood, shot and killed four police officers. The murders led to a manhunt which ended with the police killing the principal suspect, Maurice Clemmons.

While the manhunt is over, the fallout from the case has only begun. We quickly learned that Clemmons had served only 11 years of a 100-plus sentence in Arkansas before having his sentence commuted by then-Governor Mike Huckabee.

By way of background, by the time he was 18, Clemmons had been sentenced to 108 years for burglary, theft, robbery, and possessing a gun on school property. This amounted to a life sentence for crimes committed when he was a minor—none of which involved murder.

After Clemmons had served 11 years, the governor and the Clemency Commission of Arkansas commuted his sentence to 56 years. This didn’t release Clemmons—but it did make him eligible for parole. It was granted, and he was released.

This should never have happened. He should not have been released at that time.

What happened next was another series of bad decisions by officials in both Arkansas and Washington. And this tragedy culminated in the killing of four police officers.

The Clemmons’ story is horrifying—and we should strive to ensure that the tragedy of errors that made it possible never happens again. How much more horrific could it be, that four of our most trusted law enforcement officers, who protect us every day, should be gunned down in cold blood by someone who still should be in prison.

We should also strive to make clear that this incident does not mean that people in prison can never change. The Bible teaches us that people can and do change. Indeed, that is at the heart of the Gospel—that someone can move from darkness to light, from lost to being saved. That Moses, who was a murderer, can be a leader of the people of Israel. That Paul, a co-conspirator in murder, can take the Gospel to the gentiles in the entire world.

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But the Gospel does not naively accept every claim of change by any offender or anyone else. Nor does it even accept the reasonable recommendation of a pastor advocating for release of an inmate, no matter how well meaning.

It is true that America incarcerates too many people. But that does not mean that we simply release offenders. It means we must distinguish between the truly dangerous and those who can be supervised in less restricted settings without compromising public safety.

As a former attorney general of Virginia, I can tell you that nothing I have read about the Clemmons case suggests that this was the approach. People are rightly outraged over the killings in Tacoma, and we should learn from the mistakes that led to these killings.

We should remember that prisons do serve a vital role in keeping the public safe. But we should also remember there’s nothing misplaced about bringing the Gospel to inmates, nor seeking to reform a system that made these killings possible.

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