WASHINGTON -- There's a good chance in tonight's presidential debate that the name Willie Horton Jr. will come up, but Democrat Michael Dukakis should have new ammunition against the bane of his campaign.
A national study has found one in every 10 state and federal prisoners won temporary leaves last year and few caused any problems at all, let alone the sort of violence wrought by convicted murderer Horton when he escaped on a weekend furlough from the Massachusetts system during Dukakis's governorship.
Indeed, Massachusetts reported a 'success rate' of 99.9 percent throughout its furlough program last year, much like the 98 percent or better listed by nearly half the 50 states. A successful furlough is defined as one in which the prisoner returns on time and does not commit any violations while free.
The study by Contact Center Inc., a non-profit criminal justice information clearinghouse in Lincoln, Neb., was issued Wednesday in light of the furlough issue's emergence in the presidential campaign.
Vice President George Bush, the Republican nominee, repeatedly has used the Horton case to brand Dukakis as soft on crime, lashing the three-term governor for presiding over a prison system that allowed the convicted murderer to be free long enough for him to assault a couple last year in Oxon Hill, Md.
Bush has attacked along several lines, even using bitter humor by saying that while movie hero 'Dirty Harry' tells criminals, 'Go ahead, make my day,' the Democratic nominee tells them, 'Go ahead, have a nice weekend.'
Dukakis has responded by accusing Bush of 'shamelessly playing politics with the tragedy' and noting, 'I, as chief executive, took responsibility for that tragic Horton case and acted to change that policy.'
Dukakis signed a bill in March prohibiting other convicted killers without chance of parole from obtaining furloughs. Until then, Massachusetts had been the only state in the nation that allowed temporary leaves to such criminals.
But while the furlough program was not his own creation -- it was set up by Republican Gov. Francis Sargent in the early 1970s -- the record shows Dukakis acted the change the policy only after public criticism that included a series of newspaper reports and a petition signed by more than 50,000 voters.
Horton never did get back to Massachusetts. A judge sentenced him to two life terms in the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, a maximum security facility.
Last week, Horton's Maryland victims, Cliff and Angela Barnes, went to Texas and California at the invitation of Bush supporters to tell their story and to denounce Dukakis. With the case thus persisting as a emotional political item, Bush showed no signs of backing away as he prepared for tonight's debate.
The study by Contact Center found more than 200,000 furloughs were granted to 53,000 prisoners last year at the state and federal levels. Thirty-six states, the District of Columbia and the federal government allowed passes for inmates serving life terms but with eligibility for parole.
Generally, furloughs are given to prisoners who are within a few months of release to help them prepare to integrate back into the community.
'The study shows that furloughs are a standard tool of corrections and are very, very successful,' said Emily Herrick, associate editor of Corrections Compendium, a publication of Contact Center.
Dukakis has defended furloughs as a valuable rehabilitation tool, conceding that in some rare cases they encounter violence and tragedy. He also has noted pointedly that while Bush's ally, Ronald Reagan, was governor of California, two inmates on furloughs committed murder.
Anthony Travisono, director of the American Correctional Association, which represents prison officials and guards, said Wednesday, 'Furlough programs are good programs. We're very upset with Bush singling out furloughs. We feel mistakes are made from time to time, but with a 98 percent success rate we don't want the baby thrown out with the wash water.'