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Davis Is Playing Parole Politics

Willie Horton haunts the governor.

October 27, 2002|Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The well-scripted ritual happened again when Gov. Gray Davis flatly said no this month to parole for convicted murderer Jerilyn Becker.

Davis has approved paroles for only two of the more than 100 convicted killers eligible during his term in office. But the Becker denial was especially galling.

In 22 years behind bars, she has maintained a spotless prison record, counseled and ministered to hundreds of inmates and was praised by her prison work supervisors and officials. As a free woman, Becker could have been a model for the convicted killer turned productive citizen.

Davis said no to releasing Becker and other seemingly rehabbed killers because the ghost of Willie Horton haunts him. Horton was a convicted killer who, while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison, beat a Maryland man and raped his fiancee.

During the presidential elections in 1988, the elder George Bush pounded his Democratic presidential opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, on the Horton release. Democrats everywhere mumbled a solemn pledge to themselves that they would not be outshouted again by Republicans on the law-and-order issue.

The soft-on-crime tag that Republicans plastered on Democrats dates back to Richard Nixon's successful campaign in 1968.

Nixon branded Democrats as permissive on crime for appointing judges who he asserted let droves of dangerous criminals loose on the streets. The Democrats screamed foul and claimed Nixon played the crime card to stoke fear of black crime and violence to get white votes.

The GOP plan worked. Nixon was elected.

Davis hasn't forgotten this political lesson. Even if he were inclined to do the right thing and free Becker, he wouldn't. It's the wrong place and the wrong political time for it.

Davis has a Ft. Knox-size campaign war chest, the Democrats enjoy a colossal registration edge over the state's Republicans, and political gaffes dog opponent Bill Simon Jr.'s campaign. A big win in November would catapult Davis into the thick of the hunt for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. His release of a convicted murderer, no matter how remote the possibility that he or she would commit another crime, poses too much political peril.

Playing hardball with the freedom of prisoners such as Becker, who have turned their lives around, may be good politics, but it's bad public policy.

Only two other states, Maryland and Oklahoma, give governors the power to veto decisions their parole boards make on prisoner releases. In both states, the governors also have taken a granite stance against releasing convicted killers. If they can use parole for political ends and pander to public terror about crime and violence to appease the voters, then the logical question is: Why bother to have parole boards, or better yet, why bother to have parole?

In usurping the authority of their parole boards, Davis and the other governors are in effect saying they have no confidence in their own appointees. This creates the public impression that parole boards cavalierly allow killers to waltz out of prison to pillage communities. There is no evidence to support this.

This is not to say that Davis should have no say over parole decisions. The governor must have the right to review the decisions. But with the handful of convicted killers who have shown that they have redeemed themselves, it makes no sense for Davis to hold them hostages to political fears.

As long as Republicans can use Willie Horton as a boogeyman to politically terrorize Democrats, prisoners such as Becker will never get the second chance they've earned.

*

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press, 1998).

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