On George H.W. Bush’s political legacy and who is afforded respect in death
In 2014, retired federal judge Nancy Gertner wrote about the long shadow of the Willie Horton case. Specifically, she wrote about how “the publicity surrounding the case … set back criminal justice reform in Massachusetts—and still does to this day.” [Nancy Gertner / Boston Globe]
“The publicity surrounding the case,” of course, for most people refers to the notorious ad that was run in support of George H.W. Bush’s campaign for president in 1988. That ad, using Horton’s case to paint opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, became, as Vox described it, the key reference point for dog-whistle politics thereafter. William Horton had been serving a sentence of life without parole in Massachusetts, where Dukakis was governor, when he was granted a weekend furlough. [Rachel Withers / Vox] While on furlough, Horton was charged and convicted of raping a women and stabbing her boyfriend. And while a local Massachusetts newspaper had also seen fit to run a series on Horton’s case (that went on to win a Pulitzer prize) and Al Gore brought it up against Dukakis during the Democratic primary, it was the Bush campaign ad and the sinking of Dukakis’s presidential election chances that would go on to haunt criminal justice policy in the United States for the decades after. [Beth Schwartzapfel and Bill Keller / Marshall Project]
In 2015, Beth Schwartzapfel and Bill Keller of the Marshall Project took a close look at the Horton case, the politics of criminal justice policy, and Horton himself. Furlough programs were relatively uncontroversial at the time Horton’s was granted. Over the course of the ’80s, all 50 states and the federal government offered them. As Schwartzapfel and Keller note, “murderers served an average of eight years before they were paroled or commuted, so furloughs were, in the toolkit of a previous generation, an uncontroversial proposition.” It was understood that furloughs “offered incentives for good behavior behind bars” and a chance for people “to reacclimate to the life they would almost certainly return to outside of prison.” [Beth Schwartzapfel and Bill Keller / Marshall Project]
The federal government also had a furlough program in place at the time. As vice president, Bush had done nothing to limit it, and after he was elected president, he showed no interest in restricting it. [Paul Waldman / Washington Post] When governor of California, Ronald Reagan defended the state’s furlough program after two men out on furlough committed murders. After the first murder, Reagan pointed out that “more than 20,000 already have these passes … and this was the only case of this kind, the only murder.” And he celebrated the fact that California was “leading the nation in rehabilitation,” saying, “obviously you can’t be perfect.” [Doug Willis / Associated Press] And while Massachusetts was unusual in that it made furlough available to certain people serving life without parole sentences, there were many other states where furlough was a possibility for people convicted of first-degree murder (for which in Massachusetts, life without parole was the automatic sentence). [Robin Toner / New York Times]
Massachusetts, Gertner wrote, went from being a state where a governor’s anti-crime council could agree that “mental health policy, juvenile justice, family services, even labor and employment had to be incorporated into solutions” to one where “mandatory sentences proliferated; alternatives to imprisonment were ignored” and “the media regularly attacked so-called lenient judges—ignoring those who were needlessly harsh.” The result was that “Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina have all gone farther to reduce prison populations than Massachusetts.” [Nancy Gertner / Boston Globe]
In 2017, writing in the Los Angeles Times, John Pfaff described the “Willie Horton effect”—“the powerful asymmetry that permeates our punishment policy: Even smart leniency is politically costly, but severity is not.” That reality has an especially pernicious effect in places where prosecutors and judges are elected. [John Pfaff / Los Angeles Times] Common-sense and compassionate policies are seen as too politically costly if the commission of a single serious crime by a person released on bail, after the completion of a sentence, or on parole, is then blamed on the judges, prosecutors, or parole commissioners involved.
After George H. W. Bush died last week, there has been a discussion of whether, and when, a political figure can be criticized after death for the harms they caused while alive. An article in Out, which described Bush’s failure to address the AIDS epidemic, as vice president and as president, noted how media accounts regularly deny dignity to many who die at the hands of the criminal legal system. The civility and restraint urged by those who would like Bush—in elected politics nearly his entire adult life—commemorated in an entirely positive light is selectively extended. If “we really did have a cultural consensus that all humans are entitled to respect in death,” Naomi Gordon-Loebl writes, then “perhaps Michael Brown, just seventeen years old and far from a public figure, would not have been described as ‘no angel’ in a national newspaper just days after his murder at the hands of an adult police officer. Sandra Bland might have been spared the constant emphasis on the ‘marijuana in her system’ the same month she was laid to rest. Trayvon Martin’s school suspension record might not have been dredged up one month after he was killed on a trip home from the store to buy Skittles.” [Naomi Gordon-Loebl / Out]