Willie Horton’s Revenge

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By Michael Kinsley

Remember Willie Horton? He was the Massachusetts prisoner, serving a sentence of life without parole for murder, who walked away from a weekend release program and later committed armed robbery and rape. In the 1988 presidential election, Republican vice president George H.W. Bush made Horton a major issue against the Democrat, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

Dukakis was blind-sided. He knew little or nothing about Horton or this program until political opponents made an issue of it. The program actually had been signed into law by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor. But Horton escaped on Dukakis’s watch, and he was nailed for it. Anyway, a weekend release program for people in prison for life without parole is pretty hard to defend.

Cut to 2012. A long front-page story runs in the New York Times on Sunday about a halfway house program in New Jersey from which no fewer than 5,100 inmates have escaped since 2005, including 1,300 since Republican Governor Chris Christie took office. These are not the halfway houses you think of -- small, homelike places where prisoners can adjust slowly to a return to society. These are gigantic human warehouses, apparently, indistinguishable from prisons except for less security. The Times has several Willie-Horton-like stories of prisoners just walking away from these facilities, or from job-release programs connected to them, and resuming their careers of murder and mayhem.

In keeping with current fashion, the halfway houses are privately managed, most by a firm called Community Education. Christie, apparently so blinded by ideology (privatization is good; state government is bad) that he can’t see the obvious, has praised Community Education as “representing the very best of the human spirit.”

Christie has actually been a paid and registered lobbyist for Community Education. A close pal is a senior vice president of the company. A son-in-law of Community Education’s CEO was hired in 2010 as an “executive assistant” in the governor’s office.

Community Education has staked out a “most-planes-land-safely” defense, telling the Times: “To focus on walkaways from halfway houses would be to report on only part of the story.” What about “the majority of offenders who complete a halfway house program without walking away”?

Christie was driven to developing this halfway-house program by the financial pressure of keeping so many citizens behind bars. For all we know, it might be a terrific program, apart from the fact that hundreds of people who should be behind bars just walk away from it. But nobody showed any such understanding for Michael Dukakis, nailed for a program he hadn’t even started.

(Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)


-0- Jun/17/2012 18:18 GMT