Election 2014

2014's Willie Hortons: Hysterical "Soft on Crime" Campaign Ads Make a Comeback


Americans are, without question, safer today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Between 1992 and 2012, violent crime in the United States dropped by 49%. Yet Americans consistently believe that crime is increasing year after year.

In an attempt to exploit these fears for political gain this midterm election season, candidates and independent groups have run ads in Nebraska, Kansas, Alaska, and Colorado attacking opponents for being "soft on crime".

Some of these ads are so heinous, they've drawn comparison to the infamous Willie Horton spot that aired in 1988. That ad went down in the annals for making people believe Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was to blame for the rape committed by a scary black prisoner who was on weekend furlough.

Here are some of the worst Willie Horton–style ad campaigns running this year:


The ad that most closely resembles the Willie Horton spot comes from Nebraska. Paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, it tries to link Democratic state senator Brad Ashford to the murders committed by Nikko Jenkins, a man who was released from prison early. The ad has been viewed over 162,000 times on YouTube.

Like the fear mongering Willie Horton ad, this ad plays up racial stereotypes with menacing footage of Nikko Jenkins, a black man heavily covered in facial tattoos, yelling at the camera while in his prison uniform. As this footage plays, a female narrator states Jenkins was released from prison after serving only half of his sentence because of the state's "good time" law, which Ashford supported and still defends.

Indeed, Nebraska's "good time" law, which was expanded in 1992 to allow prisoners to earn automatic credits toward reductions in their sentences, is why Jenkins was released after 10 and a half years. He had received a maximum 21-year sentence for two carjackings committed as a teenager and two assaults committed while behind bars.

But it's still not right to take away all offenders' ability to earn credit for good behavior just because there's a chance one of them might commit a crime in the future. The implication that Ashford, who didn't even vote on the law, is somehow responsible for Jenkins' murders is ridiculous at best.

If that's not bad enough, there's more. Yesterday, the NRCC released a second ad attacking Ashford for being soft on crime. The narrator once again links his support of the state's "good time" law to Nikko Jenkins' murders—and adds that he also supported removing sex offenders from the state registry.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, that claim refers to amendments Ashford offered that would allow the state to differentiate between high-risk offenders, like those convicted of child molestation, and low-risk offenders, like those convicted of public urination. As far as the NRCC is concerned, this means he wants to prevent families from knowing if sexual predators are in their neighborhoods.


This ad comes from the current Republican governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback. It starts by showing two scary black men, the Carr brothers, who went on a "killing spree" and were subsequently sentenced to death row. The Kansas Supreme Court later overturned those sentences because of legal errors made during the sentencing phase of trial.

However, the narrator states that "liberal judges" changed the Carr brothers' death sentences and that Brownback's Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, "supported these judges." The ad goes on to accuse Davis of being a "liberal defense lawyer" who will appoint "liberal judges" to the Kansas Supreme Court who will let murderers, like the Carr brothers, "off the hook."

The thing is, the Carr brothers weren't let out of prison, as the ad suggests—their convictions stand. The likelihood that they'll be released before they die is roughly 0 percent. And even if their death sentences had been upheld, they likely wouldn't have been executed, as Kansas hasn't performed an execution since 1965.

But who cares about all of that when there's fear to manufacture and exploit?



Alaska Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, initially ran an ad attacking his Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, on his crime record, but pulled it after it received massive backlash.

The ad, which can still be viewed on Politico, suggested that as the state's attorney general, Sullivan was responsible for the early release of a convicted sex offender who later murdered a couple and sexually assaulted their 2-year-old granddaughter. It features a retired police sergeant parking in front of the location where the brutal crimes took place and even lists the address.

But Jerry Active, the man accused of committing these crimes, hasn't been convicted yet. In fact, the trial hasn't even begun. The victim's family attorney contacted Begich's campaign and asked him to take down his ad, partly out of fear it could poison the jury pool.

Moreover, Sullivan had nothing to do with Active's release. He was let out of prison in 2009 after serving four years of a plea deal that, according to Politico, happened "because of a clerical error that took place before Sullivan became attorney general."

The controversial ad received a "pants on fire" rating from Politifact.com.

Sleazy, yes. Facutally inaccurate, potentially harmful to Active's trial and traumatizing to the victims' family? Who cares. An election is at stake!

Republican candidate for governor Bob Beauprez is running a similar ad suggesting Hickenlooper let a prisoner out who threatened to "kill as many people" as he could.

The ad ends with text that reads, "With John Hickenlooper as Governor, is your family safe?"

Terrifying, indeed.

Besides being inflammatory, inaccurate, and/or misleading, all these ads have the potential to do some real harm. A recent study published by the American Constitution Society and two Emory Law School professors found that airing a lot of state supreme court election ads makes justices less likely to rule in favor of criminal defendants.

It's one thing to run ads criticizing a candidate's record on crime, but using scary images of heinous criminals and attempting to link your opponent to the crimes they committed crosses a line. It's irresponsible, and it reinforces the misconception that crime is going up and politicians need to "do something" about it. Good policy rarely comes from hysteria.


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  1. this ad plays up racial stereotypes with menacing footage of Nikko Jenkins, a black man heavily covered in facial tattoos, yelling at the camera while in his prison uniform.

    If that’s real footage of an actual event, I’m struggling to see how it is racist.

    1. Maybe they should use computer editing to make Jenkins look caucasian?

      1. No, they should find some video of Jenkins when he was playing tiddly winks as a twelve year old, anything less is straight up racism.

    2. Perhaps Ms. Galik believes that reality is racist.

      1. Of course reality is racist! How else do you explain the disadvantages African-Americans labor under?

  2. “That ad went down in the annals for making people believe Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was to blame for the rape committed by a scary black prisoner who was on weekend furlough.”

    I thought Dukakis defended the furlough program even *after* the Horton, uh, incident, and that he vetoed a bill to limit the program. I also thought that the first candidate to use the Horton affair against Dukakis was…Al Gore.

  3. Maybe I’m recalling incorrectly, but wasn’t the Willie Horton thing actually legit? As I recall, the supposedly infamous ad was actually fairly sparse. As I understand it, libertarian criminal reform is more aimed at improving prison conditions, reducing/eliminating jail time for non-violent crimes, and rehabilitation for non-violent felonies — not so much for releasing murderers convicted for life into the wild for the weekend on a quality-of-life rationale (which is what the Willie Horton case was about).

    1. Yeah, are we supposed to believe that the ad was nefarious because they should have picked a *white* criminal to denounce?

  4. “That ad went down in the annals for making people believe Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was to blame for the rape committed by a scary black prisoner who was on weekend furlough.”

    The ad worked because Dukakis refused to simply own up to and say “sorry about all of this, the furlough program was wrong”. Instead, he dug in and tried to defend it, looking like an ass in the process. Kind of like Carter and the killer bunny, he was too egocentric to simply say he was wrong.

  5. What a surprise, scumbag politicians go to the scare the populace/tough on crime well. I’ve never seen that before.

  6. To be safe, we need to be protected. So we first have to be unsafe so that the government can get the funds it needs to protect us. So if we first have to be made unsafe in order that we can be made safe, then it’s for our own good. Which means that we can never truly be safe, or else we’l become unsafe. It’s just good that we have TOP MEN who have figured this out.

  7. Americans are, without question, safer today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Between 1992 and 2012, violent crime in the United States dropped by 49%.

    Ummm, you know, just spitballin’ here, but maybe the sharp reduction in violent crime has to do with the fact that violent criminals get really long prison sentences and a lot of states have done away with parole and work release programs altogether? You know, maybe???

  8. I know it’s an article of faith on the left that the Willie Horton ad was racist, but I didn’t expect that from Reason. Michael Dukakis insisted on defending a program that allowed convicted murderers to spend weekends out of prison. As a direct result of that idiotic program, Willie Horton was able to torture a couple in their home – repeatedly raping the woman and beating the man.

    Yes, the ad brings up a case where a black man raped a white woman, but it really freakin’ happened. Does political correctness require us to ignore crimes when the perpetrator is black and the victim is white? Is that Reason’s argument?!!!

  9. Does political correctness require us to ignore crimes when the perpetrator is black and the victim is white?

    As best we can, yes.

    Generally by not disclosing, or using euphemisms, for the perp’s race.

  10. I thought Willie Horton’s was a breakfast chain.

  11. My first reaction was “they let a *carjacker* out of prison early for good behavior? Are they insane?”

    But then I realized I’m just really racist.

  12. Aside from the “good time” law, Jenkins was released earlier than scheduled and able to commit the murders because a judge didn’t know the law or math.

  13. Well of course crime increases as the penal code increases and actions that were legal in yesteryear are suddenly illegal.

  14. Going on in Arizona, too. See the AG’s race. Rotellini released an ad attacking the incumbent Mark Brnovich over some escaped prisoners:


  15. As the author of the investigative report “Getting Away with Murder,” Reader’s Digest, July 1988 — which nationally exposed the Dukakis/furlough issue, much to his regret — I am calling b.s. on Ms. Galik.

    Here is a link to a public posting of that article. The facts — and believe me, this article was REALLY fact-checked closely — speak for themselves:

    http://polisci2.ucsd.edu/ps100da/Bidinotto Readers Digest Getting Away with Murder.pdf

    Since Ms. Galik alleges racist motives, let me point out that my article never mentions, anywhere, the race of “William R. Horton Jr,” as readers can see for themselves. Nor did the piece call him “Willie.” Nor did we run a photo of him. We believed that the race of the perpetrator had nothing to do with a policy that let him victimize innocent people when he should have been serving a “life without parole” sentence behind bars — not unless Ms. Galik is prepared to argue that Horton’s victims would have been relieved if only Horton was white.

  16. The link isn’t working, so to elaborate:

    In 1976, after a killer escaped from the furlough program, Dukakis vetoed an bill by his own Democrat-dominated legislature to eliminate first-degree “no parole” murderers, like Horton, from participation. That made Dukakis responsible for what followed.

    Horton had murdered a 17-year-old gas station attendant and dumped the boy’s body in a trash barrel. He was sentenced to “life without parole” for first-degree murder.

    Yet by 1986, Horton was enjoying prison furloughs. He did not return from his tenth. He then invaded the home of a Maryland couple and subjected them to a 12-hour ordeal of beatings, torture, and rape, before he was caught in a police shoot-out.

    Yet despite a public uproar over Horton’s furlough rampage, Dukakis refused to end participation of killers in the program. Why? He was using furloughs as a trial-and-error way to see if “no-parole” killers would behave themselves on the streets. If they weren’t caught committing more crimes and returned on schedule, then Dukakis would eventually commute their sentences to 2nd-degree murder, making them parole-eligible. By March 1987, Dukakis had commuted the “no parole” sentences of 28 first-degree murderers.

    So how, exactly, was this an illegitimate issue in the 1988 campaign?

  17. Do we really know that crime has been reduced. The LAPD Cheif was recently caught lying about crime stats to make things look better. Hos staff was under orders to reduce the severity of the reported crimes that did not involve federal authorities.


  18. I’m from Nebraska, our “good time” law has little to do with how good a prisoner is while in jail, and a lot to do with how long they have been there.

    If a prisoner stays out of trouble and becomes a role model in prison, then yes… let there be the possibility of letting them out early for good behavior. But prisoners like Nikko Jenkins (who incidentally murdered several people AFTER he was released) should not be let out early. An automatic “good time” law IS ridiculous in a case like this.

    I’m not a huge fan (ok, I’m not at all a fan) of Lee Terry, and maybe the campaign is over the top, but our good time law does need reform.

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