Who Will Be Quinn's Willie Horton?

Quinn faces early release issues

By Steve Rhodes
|  Monday, Dec 14, 2009  |  Updated 6:43 PM CDT
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Who Will Be Quinn's Willie Horton?

Getty Images / Scott Olson

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.

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For the second time in a month, Gov. Pat Quinn has an early prisoner-release problem.

A few weeks ago, Quinn announced an entirely reasonable plan to let no more than 1,000 non-violent prisoners already near the end of their terms and living in halfway houses to go home early to save the state an estimated $5 million.

The timing and method of the announcement - buried in a Friday afternoon news release - led to suspicions that the administration was trying to hide its plan.

Now AP has found that aside from the earlier plan, more than 850 inmates -- including some convicted of drunk driving, battery and weapons violations -- have been released just days or weeks into their prison terms due to what it calls a "secret change" in state policy.

Quinn is suspending the policy change upon further review.

This, too, could turn out to be not as dire as first thought, but prisoner-release programs have become lightning rods for governors at least since George H. W. Bush pilloried Michael Dukakis with the now-infamous Willie Horton. In November, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine published a a cover story arguing that the criminal justice system hasn't been the same since.

And neither has our politics.

Aside from the furor over the racial cast of the Bush commercial that made Horton a household name, governors are now held to an even tighter standard of accountability when it comes to prisoners released early who commit crimes.

Sometimes governors don't even have to be the ones who did the releasing to catch heat.

"This Year's Willie Horton?" Time magazine asked during the last presidential primaries in a piece about a prisoner released by a Massachusetts judge while Mitt Romney was governor.

And just a few weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh called the gunman in the shooting deaths of four police officers in Washington "Huckabee's Willie Horton." As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee had commuted the gunman's sentence.

Quinn has acknowledged that he'll be blamed if any prisoner he releases early go astray. Heading into an election year, it could cost him his job.

Steve Rhodes is the proprietor of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news and culture review.

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