Crime and politics
In keeping with the spirit of the season, I thought I'd pay tribute to one of the the most prominent figures of the 1988 presidential election. The gentlemen on your left is William R. Horton. Back in 1974, he and a couple of other guys robbed a gas station. After the 17-year-old attendant gave them the money, Horton stabbed him 19 times and tossed his body into a trash dumpster. For that, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
In 1986, Horton was given a weekend furlough from prison. The furlough system had been set up by previous Republican governors, but a Democrat, Michael Dukakis, had expanded it to those convicts serving sentences for murder. Horton didn't come back from the furlough, eventually turning up in Maryland, where he was arrested after raping a local woman and pistol-whipping her fiance. Dukakis ran for president in 1988, and the "Willie Horton" ad (which you can watch here), detailing the main events and including the picture above, played a key role in his defeat.
That wasn't the only role crime played in the election. During one of the presidential debates, Dukakis was asked, "If your wife were raped and murdered, would you favor the death penalty for her killer?" Dukakis' answer (which you can see here), in which he displayed the same demeanor as if he'd been asked the name of his favorite breakfast cereal, also contributed to the argument that the Democrats were "soft" on crime. That message wasn't lost on the Democrats; it was the last time they would run a presidential candidate who opposed the death penalty. Their next candidate, Bill Clinton, drove the point home by interrupting his campaigning to return to Arkansas to permit the execution of a man so profoundly retarded that he told his prison guards that he'd like to save the desert in his last meal "for later."
That's the dance that was largely played out after 1968, when Richard Nixon ran on a "law and order" platform, and "Impeach Earl Warren" signs dotted rural landscapes. Even in 2000, Al Gore tried to inoculate himself on the crime issue by advocating a constitutional amendment for victim's rights, and proposing that all parolees be tested for drugs twice a week and returned to prison if the test proved positive.
So it's somewhat interesting that crime is virtual non-issue in this election. The McCain campaign has been largely silent about Barack Obama's significant role in reforming Illinois' death penalty while a state senator. Both candidates criticized the Supreme Court's decision striking down the death penalty for child rapists, but the issue hasn't been commented further since the case came down in June. Hillary Clinton tried to get traction on the crime issue by opposing the reduction in the disparity of crack and powder cocaine sentencing laws, but that garnered virtually no attention on the campaign trail then, and none since.
To a certain extent, this reflects the fact that crime rates are substantially reduced from what they were a couple decades back, and also the realization that crime is predominantly a local and state issue. But to a large extent, it also reflects the fact that crime is a minefield for politicians. When we passed the milestone of having the largest prison population in the world a few months back, I can't recall a single political figure commenting on it. Although there is a growing realization of the need for programs helping ex-convicts make the transition from prisons back to their neighborhoods, that's operating well below the political radar.
Whatever the causes, it's unfortunate. Criminal justice is one of the major issues a society must deal with. Death penalty reform deserves a debate. How to handle the drug problem -- legalization or decriminalization of some drugs, or of simple possession -- deserves a debate. Why we have five percent of the world's population but a quarter of its prisoners deserves a debate.
But we're not getting one now, and I'm doubtful that we'll ever have an honest one.