Willie Horton was an inmate at a Massachusetts corrections facility serving a life sentence for murdering a man when he received a weekend pass thanks to a prison furlough program maintained by then-governor Michael Dukakis over the objection of the state legislature. While out of prison, Horton twice raped a Maryland woman after pistol-whipping, knifing, binding, and gagging her fiancé.
When Dukakis ran for president against George H.W. Bush, a PAC supporting Bush ran an ad about Horton’s release called “Weekend Pass.” The ad is thought to have damaged Dukakis’ election prospects.
At that time and for years thereafter, Democrats complained that “Weekend Pass” was racist. In my view the charge lacked merit, amounting to a typical attempt by Democrats to escape the evil consequences of their lenient social engineering projects by shouting “racism.”
To be sure the ad featured a picture of Horton, thereby enabling viewers to determine his race. But it seemed clear to me that the ad would have used a picture of any rapist, black or white, who looked as scruffy as Horton.
I bring up Willie Horton because bipartisan legislation pending in Congress would free thousands of felons for prison. Given the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested — around 75 percent within five years — these freed federal felons will commit thousands of crimes.
Some of these crimes surely will be lurid. Thus, any member of Congress who supports the legislation will be vulnerable to a Willie Horton style ad.
Members of Congress recognize the potential problem. But I wonder whether Republican members supporting the legislation fully appreciate the danger.
It’s true that this isn’t the same America that existed in 1988. A modern Willie Horton might well receive partially sympathetic treatment in the press. We might learn, for example, that he came from a broken home, was sexually abused as a child, and became a hardened criminal only after incarceration.
Moreover, specious charges of racism carry much more weight these days. America’s children, teenagers, and college students are relentlessly taught to detect it in “micro-aggressions” and other innocuous and/or non-race-related events.
These lessons have taken hold to a degree. They would make a Willie Horton type ad less powerful in a general election. And Republican candidates wouldn’t have to worry about this type of ad from Democrats whose fear of being called racist prevents them even from saying “all lives matter.”
But in a Republican primary, the calculus would be very different. Republican voters can be expected to react to a Willie Horton type ad in about the same way the general electorate did in 1988 — with dismay and disgust towards those responsible for freeing a felon who goes on to commit a horrible crime.
The Democrats’ answer to this concern isn’t at all compelling. Dick Durbin tries to assure colleagues by “say[ing] whenever you change sentencing guidelines it’s a political risk, because none of us can guarantee human nature.” “Even after every judge, every prosecutor, every victim has looked carefully, they can make mistakes,” he added.”
Durbin, of course holds a pretty safe Senate seat to which he was just reelected. He couldn’t care less whether, say, Thom Tillis gets Willie Hortoned in a primary.
Moreover, the political risk for Republicans is greater than Durbin lets on. Judges, not prosecutors or victims, will have the final say and some of them — especially the doctrinaire left-wingers President Obama appoints — aren’t likely to look at these cases all that carefully. Instead they will assume that a sentence that no longer would be imposed under the new mandatory minimums is inherently unjust when served by someone sentenced under the old ones.
The result will be a pass to most federal felons who have already served the time prescribed by the new minimums. And not just for a weekend.
Dick Durbin isn’t slick enough to persuade Republicans to assume the risk of being Willie Hortoned. It strikes me that others with more to offer Republicans may be doing the persuading.
Regardless, the political risk isn’t worth taking.