In Lawrence, Mass., on Oct. 26, 1974, William "Willie" Horton robbed a gas-station attendant and, along with two accomplices, stabbed him to death. In 1986, while serving a life prison sentence in Massachusetts, Horton was given a weekend pass under the state's furlough program. He went missing for nearly a year and was eventually recaptured in Maryland, but only after he had raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé.
Willie Horton's case became an albatross for Michael Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts at the time of Horton's disappearance and had supported the furlough program his predecessor put in place. In 1988, George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign used the Horton incident to paint Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, as being soft on crime. The Associated Press later wrote that the election "sometimes resembled a national referendum on Willie Horton."
Forty years later, Marc Levin still cites the Horton case as one of the main reasons for America's difficulty coming around to prison reform. Levin is the cofounder of Right on Crime, a conservative, Texas-based group that advocates for sentencing reform and eliminating mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses.
Levin says that after the 1988 election, Democrats overcompensated with too-strict crime laws. "After Willie Horton and everything, they were really scared about being seen as soft on crime, so they overreacted and latched onto things that weren't good policy, but were just sound bites," Levin told National Journal.