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Looking Back On President George H.W. Bush's Controversial Criminal Justice Legacy


President George H.W. Bush is being remembered as a statesman, a gracious politician and a family man. We're going to look now at another part of his legacy, one that is far more controversial. During his 1988 presidential campaign, Bush and his supporters attacked his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty. He allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison.

CHANG: Willie Horton went on to commit other violent crimes on one of those weekends. The Marshall Project's Beth Schwartzapfel has written a lot about Willie Horton, the black man named in that political ad. She says as soon as that ad ran, it caught fire.

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: Something about both the ad itself and also the way that George H.W. Bush hammered away at that story on the stump really sort of captured the public's imagination. And the interesting thing is, the ad did not run for very long. It only aired for a week or two, but it became the subject of countless news stories. People were just talking about Willie Horton constantly.

CHANG: And remind us. In Massachusetts at the time, I mean, how controversial was the furlough program?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: In fact, furloughs were incredibly uncontroversial not just in Massachusetts but really anywhere. When we interviewed Governor Dukakis as part of a story we did about the Willie Horton ad, he reminded us that one of the most liberal furlough programs at the time was in the federal prison system under - you guessed it - President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush.

CHANG: So Willie Horton the man very quickly evolves into an idea, this idea that if as a politician you go out on a limb and you decide to become lenient or soft on crime, you will get burned.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Absolutely. And in fact, even now as Congress contemplates the sentencing reform and other types of federal prison reform with the First Step Act, you've got senators like Tom Cotton warning, somebody's going to get out; we're all going to lose our seats if we vote against this. And that's just clearly a nod to the Willie Horton ad. Ever since then, it sort of set the stage that if somebody gets out and something bad happens, it's automatically the fault of whoever wrote that policy.

CHANG: Let's talk about how the Willie Horton ad - what it does to prospects of sentencing reform or other criminal justice reform in the years that followed. I mean, at this point, you know, it's the late '80s. America is entering the worst of the crack epidemic. How does this ad set up the Bush administration's drug policies and approach to law enforcement?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Oh, absolutely, I mean, it was the 1988 presidential campaign where this ad was a major issue. And it was 1989 when George H.W. Bush announced a major policy shift around the war on drugs. You may remember he gave a famous speech in 1989 where he held up a little baggie of crack that agents had supposedly purchased in the park across the street from the White House.


GEORGE H W BUSH: This, this is crack cocaine.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: They actually had lured this drug dealer to that park to buy the drugs from him. He didn't even know where the White House was. But the point is that he went before the nation, and he said that crack is the No. 1 public priority, that he was going to allocate a billion and a half dollars to spending on - and this is a quote - "more jails, more courts, more prosecutors." He said, if you sell drugs, you will be caught.


BUSH: You will be caught. And when you're caught, you will be prosecuted. And once you're convicted, you will do time - caught, prosecuted, punished.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: So this was an announcement of a major federal push to use the criminal justice system as a tool to fight the war on drugs.

CHANG: You mentioned earlier Senator Tom Cotton's remarks, Senator Cotton of Arkansas. And I'm curious. How else do you see the legacy of the Willie Horton ad playing out today as lawmakers are trying to embark on sentencing reform?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: I think the main way you see the Horton ad playing out today is in a deep conservatism, and I mean that with a lowercase C - a reluctance to tackle the length of sentences for violent crime. The political lesson is if somebody gets out and does something terrible, it's not because sometimes bad things happen. It's because it's your fault. You shouldn't have written that law, and you're not going to get re-elected.

CHANG: Beth Schwartzapfel is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She joined us via Skype. Thank you very much.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.