Led by the late Repub­lican cam­paign oper­a­tive Lee Atwater, Bush’s cam­paign seized on the case of Willie Horton, a con­victed murder who was allowed out of prison on a weekend fur­lough designed to aid the rein­te­gra­tion process. While out, Horton raped a woman. The high­lighting of the crime by Bush and his allies proved dev­as­tating to Dukakis, who at one point had a double-​​digit lead in some polls.

Dukakis said research showing that harsh sen­tences did more harm than good was not readily avail­able during his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign — some­thing that has changed in recent years. He also said the finan­cial strain of incar­cer­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly at the state level, has helped drive the push for changes.

When states look at pro­posals “that seem to work a hell of a lot better at much less cost, than I don’t care where you’re coming from ide­o­log­i­cally, it seems to me we ought to be exploring those kinds of things, and that’s what’s hap­pening,” Dukakis, a pro­fessor at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity in Boston, said.

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