AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Controversy is swirling and a judge is stepping in after outgoing Mississippi governor Republican Haley Barbour pardoned some 200 people this week. This was one of Barbour's last acts in office.
Murderers, robbers, arsonists and drug dealers are among those granted a reprieve. Jeffrey Hess of Mississippi Public Broadcasting reports now on what's happened since.
JEFFREY HESS, BYLINE: In the state capital of Jackson late last night, a judge put most of the 200 pardons on hold. Some inmates, including several murderers, have already been released from prison and some may have left the state. The Mississippi attorney general, Jim Hood, believes the pardons are unconstitutional. He says, under state law, letters must be published in local newspapers asking for the pardon.
JIM HOOD: We're going to start going through the process of determining whether there was any publication on all of those, start serving each one of them, and then we'll bring every one of them into court, give them a chance to be heard and show us, you know, did you have any proof that it was published? If they don't, the constitution's clear. Those attempted pardons by former Governor Barbour are void.
HESS: Just 21 people who were pardoned remain in prison. Mississippi's constitution does offer broad clemency powers to the governor. Still, Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at the Mississippi College of Law, says the number of pardons is unusual.
MATT STEFFEY: This is an exceptionally large number when you look at governors in other states, even more populous states. It's not unprecedented, but it's, you know, and especially and proportionately, a very large number and it's a large number, at least by comparison to recent governors here in the state.
HESS: Some of the people worked as prison trustees at the governor's mansion and knew the governor personally, but in most cases, it's not clear why these 200 were pardoned.
Before this week's announcement, Barbour had pardoned just five people in his eight years in office. In a written statement, Governor Barbour says he checked with the parole board and issued the pardons so residents could have their full rights restored, such as voting and owning a gun.
The action surprised state lawmakers and the new governor, Phil Bryant. They've pledged to alter the state constitution. Bryant says governors should retain their power to pardon, but in much more limited circumstances.
GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: The only time that I would think, as governor, I would look at that is if someone - if evidence beyond a reasonable doubt would indicate someone had been wrongly convicted of a crime. And so you do want to leave that narrow opportunity because that has happened in Mississippi and we want to be able to utilize that pardon if that was necessary.
HESS: The pardons have outraged the victims and their families, who say they were not notified and now fear for their safety. Sandy Middleton runs a victims' advocacy group in Jackson called the Center for Violence Prevention.
SANDY MIDDLETON: I was appalled. Absolutely. I was appalled at what this means and the message these pardons send. The message is that, to victims, that they can't trust us.
HESS: The future of the pardon and the people who receive them is in legal limbo. A hearing is set for later this month to review some of the pardons. If the judge agrees they're unconstitutional, people who still owe time could end up back in prison.
For NPR News, I'm Jeffrey Hess in Jackson, Mississippi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.