I confess that I had never heard of Josh Duggar before Friday. I never watched TLC's 19 Kids and Counting show, never knew that Duggar was the eldest son of the Duggar family clan which includes ten boys and nine girls, never knew that Duggar worked for the Family Resource Council, the influential conservative Christian lobbying group. Mr. Duggar's name didn't register with me until the news broke this week that he had molested young girls, including several of his sisters, when he was a 14-year-old.
Now he matters to me. Not because of who he is or what he has done, but because Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came to Mr. Duggar's defense.
While other potential Republican conservative candidates, many of whom have been pictured with Duggar over the years or have publicly supported his family's values, stayed silent on the sidelines, Mr. Huckabee moved quickly to call for forgiveness for Mr. Duggar. Here's a sampling of what Huckabee said in a post on his Facebook page:
"Josh's actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, 'inexcusable,' but that doesn't mean 'unforgivable'.... He and his family dealt with it and were honest and open about it with the victims and the authorities. . . . Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things. The reason that the law protects disclosure of many actions on the part of a minor is that the society has traditionally understood something that today's blood- thirsty media does not understand--that being a minor means that one's judgement is not mature. No one needs to defend Josh's actions as a teenager, but the fact that he confessed his sins to those he harmed, sought help, and has gone forward to live a responsible and circumspect life as an adult is testament to his family's authenticity and humility."
Mr. Huckabee's statements have aroused the ire of many of his supporters. His Facebook page lit up with angry comments from fans. But I am not writing to join those who want to bury Mr. Huckabee. As someone who has represented many teenage offenders, I want to praise him.
Mr. Huckabee's call for mercy in this age of retribution is an act of political courage. Although his recognition that youthful offenders are less culpable for their crimes due to their immature judgment and more amenable to rehabilitation is, in the words of the United States Supreme Court, something that "every parent knows" and a matter of "common sense," few politicians - conservatives, moderates, or liberals -- have echoed his words. In my book, he gets points for being willing to take a risk, even if he is simply stating the obvious when talking about young people who commit crimes.
But the book is not yet closed on Mr. Huckabee with regard to the Duggar affair.
Will Mr. Huckabee stand silent on these issues in his run for the Presidency? Or will he use this case as a "teachable moment" and engage other conservatives (and moderates, liberals and progressives) in a debate about juvenile justice reform?
Will Mr. Huckabee's endorsement of forgiveness and privacy for Mr. Duggar, extend to the thousands of other adolescent sex offenders, who unlike Mr. Duggar, were convicted of sex offenses and are paying the price by being required to register as sex offenders. Will he call for mercy for these young men and women as well? Will he support efforts to allow them to prove that they are no longer a danger and no longer need to register?.
Will Mr. Huckabee's recognition that "being a minor means that one's judgment is not mature" lead him to oppose prosecuting juveniles as adults, housing them in adult jails and prisons, or sentencing them to mandatory prison sentences? If he truly believes that young people are capable of rehabilitation, will he oppose life without parole and other draconian sentences for juveniles? Will he support greater funding for programs aimed at rehabilitating them?
These are fair questions to ask of Mr. Huckabee. He is not the first conservative to come to the defense of a juvenile offender who committed a horrific crime. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell he came to the defense of Michael Carneal, a fourteen-year-old boy who brought a gun to school and opened fire on a prayer circle, killing three girls and wounding several others in Paducah, Ky. in 1997. Rev. Falwell took to the airwaves to protest the prosecutor's decision to try Carneal as an adult. Appearing on CNN's Larry King Live, Falwell acknowledged that others might feel differently but stated that "I don't believe anyone as young as this young man committing a homicide could possibly be in his right mind." Something must have happened to the boy, suggested Falwell: "I don't know if it's physiological or emotional, but (from) all the reports I have, he was not a criminally-minded child." To those viewers who might say, "Just shoot Michael," Falwell cautioned, "That's not the right response." He urged everyone to forgive not only Michael but his family.
As far as I can tell, this was the only time Rev. Falwell ever spoke up on these issues. He stood silent time and time again as legislators throughout the land passed laws that made it easier to prosecute juvenile offenders as adults.
Just how far will Mr. Huckabee's grace extend? Does he believe in second chances only for wealthy, white, or religious teenagers who use their influence and connections to get diverted from our juvenile and criminal justice systems or will he support the same second chances for the poor, mostly black and brown teenagers who fill our juvenile and criminal jails and prisons?
Is this true political courage or one-off favor for a politically connected friend and his family?
Only time will tell.