Willie Horton lives!
Or perhaps it's more accurate to say the ghost of Willie Horton remains alive and well in American politics.
You remember Horton, don't you?
No -- not the ex-Detroit Tigers slugger -- but rather the murderer and rapist whose menacing mug shot helped propel George H.W. Bush to the White House 24 years ago.
Horton was serving a life without the possibility of parole sentence in Massachusetts when he was released on a weekend furlough. He failed to return, as promised, and went on a crime spree in Maryland that included armed robbery and rape.
The furlough was part of a Massachusetts inmate rehabilitation strategy approved under a Republican governor in the early 1970s. But Horton was given a weekend pass during the administration of a Democratic governor, Michael Dukakis, who just happened to be Bush's 1988 general election opponent.
An "independent" group (sound familiar in this Citizens United era of unlimited corporate donations and SuperPACs?) financed a series of devastating ads that tied Horton like a millstone around Dukakis' neck -- depicting the Democratic nominee as a soft on crime, bleeding heart liberal.
Very few things frighten the elected class in this country more than the suggestion they are soft on crime.
It's one of the reasons the U.S. leads the industrialized world in prison population. And why Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state and is fourth in locking up men.
It's also why last week's mushroom cloud that enveloped the state Pardon and Parole Board was very bad news for clear-thinking Oklahomans who know the state is bankrupting itself with this punitive lock-'em-up, throw-away-the-key approach to criminal justice.
The parole board is on the hot seat because it allegedly violated the state's Open Meetings Act by failing to give proper public notice when it reviewed names of inmates placed on a special list for "early consideration" for parole or commutation.
The board evidently decided it was being sufficiently transparent when it included the special list under an agenda item identified simply as "docket modification."
Why not include it under the agenda items "grass green" or "sky blue?" Totally meaningless. Such arrogance or ignorance leaves the board, fairly or unfairly, ripe for criticism that it is pulling a fast one.
As far as I'm concerned, any alleged violation of the state's Open Meetings/Open Records law is serious. Nothing is more important to a fully functioning democratic republic than keeping public decision-making in public.
What makes the parole board's vapidity even more egregious is that it came to light just when Oklahoma is on the verge of doing something meaningful to reform its out-of-whack criminal justice system.
In November, voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment -- State Question 762 -- that would remove the governor from the parole process for non-violent offenders.
No other state requires its chief executive to make the final call on each case, down to the repeat shoplifter. And for good reason: It unnecessarily gums up the process, it ends up costing taxpayers more (some inmates simply choose to finish out their sentences instead) and it needlessly exposes the decision to political influence.
Governors are total political animals. They aren't impartial jurists -- like criminal court judges or parole board members who are supposed to review the facts, ignore the politics and make the tough calls -- but instead are all-too-often scared witless to sign parole recommendations.
Why? There is no crystal ball to predict whether an offender will live an exemplary life -- or do something stupid and criminal again.
No chief executive wants to be the one blamed for the next Willie Horton.
Former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, routinely milked the clock, waiting as long as possible to take action. Often he answered no, despite the parole board's recommendations.
Call it the better safe than sorry approach.
So far, current Republican Gov. Mary Fallin is approving just over half the cases sent her by the parole board, according to a Tulsa World analysis.
Who can blame inmates for, in effect, saying: Why bother? They can skip the paperwork and all the anxiety over whether they'll be approved -- opting instead to finish their terms and not be subject to the post-incarceration supervision that would be required if they were allowed to depart the Big House early.
What a scenario: A strictly controlled life in prison one day, total freedom the next -- an instantaneous transition that should worry both ex-cons hoping for a smooth transition to a productive life and rank-and-file citizens hoping to avoid becoming victims of ex-inmates who can't cope with their suddenly unsupervised, free-wheeling lives.
This isn't a partisan issue. It was the Republican-dominated Legislature, after all, that last spring ordered State Question 762 placed on the ballot -- a constitutional amendment that if approved would reduce the power of a Republican governor.
Frankly, my guess is that current and all former Oklahoma governors gladly would have given up this power -- a headache creator if there ever was one. But this isn't an issue of political convenience; it's a matter of stewardship and leadership: how best to ensure public safety and the fair treatment of lawbreakers and how to most wisely spend the taxpayers' money.
At the end of June, Oklahoma had nearly 26,000 inmates in custody -- at an annual cost of about $16,000 each.
Far too many of those inmates are serving time for non-violent offenses, thrown behind bars because of the punitive three strikes and you're out that too many political demagogues want. In many cases the taxpayers would be better served by having them supervised, but not incarcerated -- able to work, able to remain productive citizens, able to keep their families together, but required through community service and rehabilitation programs to repay their debts to society.
At a time when teachers are being laid off, highways and bridges need fixing, highway patrol cruisers need replacing, Oklahoma cannot afford to waste money on punitive warehousing.
Further, more money is squandered by keeping the governor in the parole process for non-violent offenders: An independent audit of the corrections department five years ago found an average 100-day delay in the governor's review of paroles -- costing the state an average $4,700 per inmate.
According to House Speaker Kris Steele, who championed smart-on-crime initiatives to address Oklahoma's overcrowded, financially crippling corrections system, Fallin has processed paroles faster than Henry, but "the fact remains that the governor is still having to handle these cases when there is a better, more efficient way for them to be handled."
Removing the governor from the process, he argued, "will save money and resources that can be redirected to strategies and programs that actually increase public safety and reduce crime."
Unfortunately, the parole board's alleged shenanigans could make it more difficult to win passage of State Question 762. Who could blame voters for suddenly being suspicious of the process -- for wondering what games the parole board is playing?
Voters paying attention to the dust-up may conclude it's better to keep the governor in the process -- as a watchdog, of sorts. Others could easily misinterpret State Question 762 as a soft-headed, soft-on-crime proposal that gives law-breakers undeserved breaks.
The truth is, State Question 762 deserves to be approved because it is smart public policy. It shouldn't be a casualty of the alleged misadventures of the parole board.
It would be a disaster for the taxpayers if they are unable to separate the two issues. And worse, it would mean Willie Horton demagoguery is showing no signs of abating.
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