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.