Politicians and law enforcement agencies use the names of crime victims to stir up public outrage in an attempt to undermine prison reform efforts and promote laws that enhance sentences. This method of manipulating the media harkens back to the case of Willie Horton, according to a Los Angeles Times op-ed by John Pfaff.
In the presidential campaign of 1988, George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton’s case against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Horton, while serving a life sentence, was accepted into a weekend furlough program. In 1987, he didn’t return from his furlough and ultimately committed assault, armed robbery and rape. Bush alleged that under his presidency such a crime would not occur. Since then, exploiting cases like this for political purposes has been called the Willie Horton effect.
Presently, the Trump administration has used the death of Kate Steinle to pass a tough-on-immigration law that enhances federal sentences by 10, 15, 20 or 25 years for unlawful re-entry. (H. R. 3004 “Kate’s Law” cover sheet on congress.gov.)
Kate Steinle’s father objects to the way Trump has exploited his daughter’s murder. “Donald Trump talks about Kate Steinle like he knows her,” Brad Steinle, Kate’s father, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2015. “I’ve never heard a word from his campaign manager. I’ve never heard a word from him.
“I don’t want to be affiliated with someone who doesn’t have the courtesy to reach out and ask about Kate, and our political views and what we want.” Steinle told Cooper.
The Willie Horton effect contributes to mass incarceration, which already increases the national debt, inner city poverty rates, disease and dysfunctional families according to Pfaff.
Republicans and Democrats agree that mass incarceration is an issue that needs to be addressed, but prison reform is both politically dangerous and cost efficient according to the op-ed.
Pfaff points out that opposing reform is politically advantageous while defending it is difficult and complicated. “Chiefs and sheriffs will always be able to point to a shocking crime that was committed” by an individual who benefitted from reform.
Meanwhile, federal court orders have helped alleviate overcrowding and its attendant problems.
California’s realignment has alleviated some of the clog in prisons by forcing counties to keep non-violent, non-serious and non-sex offenders in county jails, according to the op-ed. “Even smart leniency is politically costly, but severity is not.”
Tough-on-crime initiatives and legislation including the Three Strikes laws contributed to California’s prison population boom during the 1980s and 1990s.
The law passed following a media campaign after the murder of Polly Klaas.
The Three Strikes Law was designed to enhance sentences for violent repeat offenders. However, it has been used against shoplifters, drug addicts and car thieves.
In the end, these laws have not accomplished what they were designed to do, but according to Pfaff, they’ve contributed to social conditions that perpetuate crime, cost taxpayers a lot of money as well as a myriad of other problems.