Report — From the February 2015 issue

Captive Market

Why we won’t get prison reform

It’s possible that Michael Dukakis didn’t understand the question.

“If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered,” CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked the Democratic candidate on live national television near the start of the second 1988 presidential debate, “would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

What Dukakis could not have known at the time, amid the lights and the electric hum, was that the whole doomed history of the American left had quite suddenly come to rest on his answer. His rote reply — “No, I don’t, Bernard . . . ” — marked the end of more than just Dukakis’s own career. The response seemed to confirm the suspicions at the heart of arguably the most devastating attack ad in presidential-campaign history: George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton spot. The parable that emerged in 1988 — liberal politician goes soft on crime, black criminal goes on violent rampage, liberal politician loses election — quickly hardened into political truism. For Dukakis’s woebegone party, loser of three straight national elections, his strategic failure was what our current Democratic president might call a “teachable moment.”

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Four years later, Bill Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas, pointedly flew home to Little Rock in the middle of his own presidential campaign to oversee the execution of a man named Ricky Ray Rector. There was no doubt that Rector was a killer. But he was also handicapped — lobotomized by his own botched suicide — and there were profound legal and moral questions about executing a man who possessed the awareness of a dim young child. The case had dragged on for more than a decade, and in Rector’s final days, Clinton heard pleas from various Democratic stalwarts, including one of the candidates from 1988, Jesse Jackson, to commute the sentence and simply leave the diminished man in jail for life. But Clinton did not budge. His fortitude suggested a new breed: a Democrat who was more intent on winning elections than upholding bygone virtues, and who was willing to make the necessary corrections. As president, Clinton followed through on this promise: his crime agenda, the New York Times wrote in 1996, gave him “conservative credentials and threatened the Republicans’ lock on law and order.”

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’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Awakening,” appeared in the April 2013 issue.

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October 2019