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By Issac Bailey

Gov. Mark Sanford must need to get caught on FBI surveillance video in a hotel room smoking crack cocaine with a prostitute (like former D.C. mayor Marion Barry) before some state officials will think he should no longer be serving.

Or maybe finding $90,000 in cold hard cash in his freezer from a bribe (like former Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana) would do the trick for state leaders. Those same state leaders are the reason why South Carolina has become the worst in the nation for sentencing children to long, mandatory prison sentences.

The S.C. General Assembly didn’t find it necessary to even censure a local state representative who faced criminal charges after a nasty domestic violence incident in which he used a string of racial epithets and threatened to violently sodomize a rival. Some of its members say a governor whose behavior jeopardized the state’s pursuit of a Boeing plant and its 3,000 jobs, skipped the country for a week and lied to the state’s residents, effectively walking away from all of his duties for an illicit tryst, should remain governor because none of that rises to “misconduct in office.”

But let a child – South Carolina is one of the few states that prosecutes those younger than 10 in adult court and is one of only eight with a juvenile serving life without parole for a nonviolent crime – make a horrible mistake, even though we know from numerous studies that the impulse-control centers of their brains are not fully developed, and those same politicians are the first to say lock ’em up and throw away the key because they are unredeemable.

The public isn’t much better. We applaud when police handcuff an unruly 8-year-old or barely pay attention when it convicts a 12-year-old of first-degree murder – even though the only eyewitness testified that it was an accidental shooting – but are split on whether or not a grown man serving in the state’s highest office went too far with behavior so detrimental it had Homeland Security second-guessing his security clearance.

Before the S.C. Ethics Commission found probable cause for ethical or criminal violations last week in a probe delving into Sanford’s use of public money, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, released a statement that said, “Unless the investigation contains new information about serious crimes or serious misconduct by the governor, the information we have to date does not rise to a level to remove him from office.”

That’s right. A man given the responsibility to lead our National Guard and the power to suspend public officials – like he recently did with the Atlantic Beach mayor – can have all the impulse-control lapses he likes; if there’s no crack pipe in sight, he should continue leading us. But a child … let’s continue pretending they are sawed-off adults who ought to spend life in prison.

Sanford long bragged about his principles and the need to hold leaders to a high standard while messing around with any number of women and seemingly cavalierly ignoring rules about the use of state travel funds. But the state’s children, children who face among the highest rates of poverty and experience among the nation’s highest rates of domestic violence and on whom the lowest rate of money is spent to prevent child abuse … let one of them shock us, let one of them step out of line. Politicians, the same ones telling residents loudly and clearly that their misconduct should be ignored or explained away, will be the first to find a TV camera to proudly argue for harsher punishment for juvenile offenders, never mind that we know treating them like adults will make them more likely to re-offend, to become hardened criminals.

Sanford and other state leaders who screw up royally, let’s not be too tough on them. They are too delicate. They must be handled with care.

We wouldn’t want the next governor to get the impression that if he (or she) has a secret affair that puts the state’s well being in jeopardy that he (or she) might get removed from office. That would put too much stress on the shoulders of someone entrusted with leading 4.5 million people. We wouldn’t want to start kicking out leaders who act like petulant little children or stop throwing away overgrown children who don’t realize they aren’t adults.

Forget the children. We must save the politicians. They are our future.