The “most vivid reason” for the delay in congressional action on a federal sentencing reform bill is the “lingering specter” of Willie Horton, says the New York Times. Legislators are reluctant to campaign on a platform of letting felons out of prison, particularly with control of Congress at stake in November. The idea of pushing legislation that would lead to the early release of thousands of nonviolent offenders strikes fear in politicians who remember the ad featuring Horton that helped sink Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. The ad, paid for by supporters of the elder George Bush, shredded the Massachusetts governor for the prison furlough program that granted Horton a weekend pass on which he escaped and committed a brutal home invasion and rape that sent him back to prison.
“The Willie Horton story is still part of the legend and lore of American politics,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Il). While the episode is almost three decades old, it still resonates in Washington, where some are monitoring whether any drug offenders granted early release in the fall by the Obama administration quickly get back into trouble. Democrats are leery that Republicans and their campaign allies could try to stick a soft-on-crime label on candidates who support the criminal justice legislation. The Willie Horton dynamic makes clear what supporters of the legislation need to do if they hope to enact it into law this year: They must persuade leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who will decide if the legislation reaches the floor, that the politics of criminal justice have been upended and that the real political risk is to those who do not support the efforts. That could be a very steep climb.