Forty years ago this month, Willie Horton shot a Massachusetts gas-station attendant to death. In 1988, George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign used Horton’s prison furlough to paint opponent Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime. Marc Levin, co-founder of Right on Crime, says the case is one of the main reasons for he nation’s difficulty coming around to prison reform, reports the National Journal. After Horton, says Levin, Democrats overcompensated with too-strict crime laws. “They overreacted and latched onto things that weren’t good policy, but were just sound bites,” he says.
Now many Republicans favor sentencing reform, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is confident that if the GOP retakes the Senate in November, prison reform will be one area where they will be able to work with the White House. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), co-sponsor of a sentencing bill with Cornyn, agrees. “Frankly, I think the biggest danger to these bills is not really on their substance. It’s just the threat of partisan and obstructive mischief by the more extreme Republican senators,” Whitehouse says. “The motivation for that mischief evaporates once they’re in control.”