Playing Into Racial Fears, Politico Suggests Obama May Have Released ‘A New Willie Horton’

A change to the federal sentencing guidelines enacted last year has resulted in the release of about 4,300 prisoners from federal custody beginning this week. Most of those impacted were Hispanic and African-American men imprisoned for low-level drug trafficking crimes.

This is how Politico is covering the story:

The headline refers to an infamous television ad from the 1988 presidential campaign. The ad, produced by supporters of George H.W. Bush, blamed Michael Dukakis for granting Willie Horton a weekend furlough. Horton, who had previously been convicted of murder, did not return to prison and was subsequently accused of raping a woman.

The ad is credited with shifting the momentum of the 1988 campaign. But it was also roundly criticized for playing upon racial fears. It was seen as a modernized version of the “Southern Strategy,” where fears about black men are used to persuade white voters. The ad used “menacing images of the African-American Horton” without “explicit mention of race” allowing the campaign to construct “a fortress of plausible deniability.”

“There isn’t any racism,” Bush said, “I stand fully behind these ads.”

Politico’s decision to connect Obama to Horton is not grounded in facts. While Horton had been convicted of murder and was serving a life sentence, the individuals at issue today were convicted of various low-level drug trafficking crimes and were all scheduled to be released within a couple of years. Each person eligible “had to apply for early release and have a judge review the case, make a determination about public safety and sign off on reducing the sentence.” A full 80 percent of the people impacted “have been living in halfway houses or home confinement for the past few months, to ease their transition back into the community — so they will not go straight from prison to freedom.”


The Politico article states that two out of three prisoners are arrested within three years of release. But, as Radley Balko notes, recidivism statistics are likely to be grossly inflated.

While Politico quoted Sen. Ted Cruz and a prosecutor as opposing the early release, neither are quoted on the record as mentioning Willie Horton. The introduction of Horton into the modern debate about criminal justice reform appears to be Politico’s own contribution.