Maybe it's fitting that only two weeks after running his own version of the 1988 "Willie Horton" ad — an ad that led a generation of politicians to compete to outdo one another in terms of their "toughness" on crime — President Trump announced his support for a bipartisan crime-reform bill that few politicians of either party would have gone near in the Horton years. In terms of wedge issues, few issues played as well and for as long as law and order. In 1968, that was Richard Nixon's rallying cry, as he turned the once-solidly Democratic (white) South into the solidly Republican (white) South that has only recently crumbled under the force of demographics.
The stubborn correlation between race and crime has led to periodic, and sometimes entirely justified, attacks on crime politics as little more than race politics. Which did not necessarily make the attacks any easier to face, as then-Gov. Michael Dukakis discovered in 1988, when he was successfully tagged because a murderer on furlough committed a vicious rape in Maryland. It was the kind of horrible tragedy that every governor of a major state, including Ronald Reagan, has had to face. But rather than disown the program, which would be the political thing to do, Dukakis refused to condemn it.
The supposed "lesson" was that there is no such thing as being too "tough" on crime, while it was nothing short of deadly to be considered too "soft."
"You, of all people, should understand," I heard over and over, me of all people being Gov. Dukakis' campaign manager and a longtime professor of criminal law and politics. I understood.
With Republicans joining in, states passed one stupid law after another. And Congress jumped in when it could, imprisoning people for life for three strikes or two strikes or one strike; and giving mandatory minimums that had the effect of taking discretion away from judges and giving life-and-death power to prosecutors right out of school. Alternatives to incarceration were not discussed.
Ask any criminologist and he or she would tell you that if you're trying to achieve what we call selective incapacitation, a fancy way of saying you use expensive prison beds for the guys most likely to commit more violence, then waiting until someone has been convicted of three violent crimes is just way too late. By the time we lock them up for life, most of them are aging out of the system anyway, turning prisons into expensive nursing homes, with no reduction in crime. To no one's surprise except the politicians, the prison-building boon served only to enrich the coffers of the prison guards' unions and, of course, to increase racial tensions.
In 2015, former President Clinton apologized for the crime bill he signed in 1994. I understand. He nominated Dukakis for president at the 1988 Democratic convention. I gave him the numbers, every morning and every night. He saw how the issue destroyed Dukakis.
But if the "Willie Horton" era has finally ended, if we are finally recognizing that adding on another hundred years does nothing, the underlying connections between race and crime remain stubbornly unchanged. The crime rate has dropped, but the percentage of crime committed by young men who are uneducated drug users from single-parent families has not, and those social factors correlate all too stubbornly with race. It is certainly not racist to protect ourselves from violence. The victims of crime look very much like the perpetrators, except there are more women in the victims group.
But would we have acted sooner, done more, and built more schools and fewer prisons if we had been losing one generation after another of young white men to the scourge of crime?
Would it have taken until 2016 to recognize that there are alternatives to expensive, brutal incarceration, especially for nonviolent crime?
Would we have been so afraid of the ghost of an aging murderer named William Horton Jr., who will be incarcerated forever in Maryland?
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.