Skip to content

Banishing the Ghost of Willie Horton to Promote Criminal Justice Reform

Senators pushing for a reform bill enlist new supporters

Grassley has been working to get more Republican co-sponsors to the criminal justice overhaul bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Grassley has been working to get more Republican co-sponsors to the criminal justice overhaul bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The ghost of Willie Horton is haunting some senators considering a criminal justice overhaul, sending proponents back to the drawing board to reassure senators that reforms won’t release dangerous felons.

Their proposed changes, unveiled to senators this week, have breathed new life into the bid to bring the bill to the floor.

At a news conference Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, is expected present the changes and tout additional Republican co-sponsors. Also on Thursday, actors including Matt McGorry of “How to Get Away with Murder,” Hill Harper of “CSI:NY,” Melissa Fitzgerald of “The West Wing,” and Terrence J, will join formerly incarcerated advocates, clemency recipients, Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, for a briefing on how the legislation could improve the criminal justice system.

Key to enlisting more support is assuaging concerns over the impact of releasing violent felons into communities. Lawmakers well remember the 1988 campaign attack ad criticizing Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis for a weekend release program that allowed convicted murderer Willie Horton to commit rape, assault and armed robbery while on furlough.

The bill has created unlikely alliances between top leaders from both parties, and with the White House, but it’s not clear whether the measure will reach the floor, given the condensed congressional calendar this election year. Grassley has been working to drum up GOP support to prove a criminal justice overhaul has the votes needed to succeed.  

[Related: White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort]
A number of Republicans who have yet to sign on as co-sponsors said they waiting to see changes to the bill, known as the Sentencing and Corrections Reform Act. The measure would reduce some mandatory sentences and facilitate criminal re-entry into society.  

These changes were previewed at a GOP Steering Committee lunch Wednesday. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served during the George W. Bush administration, attended the weekly lunch to lay out his support.  

Mukasey, right, talks with Sen. Ron Johnson outside the GOP lunch Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Mukasey, right, talks with Sen. Ron Johnson outside the GOP lunch Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A draft summary of the changes alters earlier provisions relating to firearm offenses, and prohibits retroactive relief to any offender convicted of a serious violent felony.  

[Related: Criminal Justice Debate Turns to ‘How Much’ Is Possible]
The original bill involved reducing mandatory minimum sentences from 15 to 10 years for offenders convicted of illegally possessing a gun, who had previously been convicted of felony or drug offenses. But one of the proposed changes eliminates that provision, a move that helped Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan get on board.  

“I was very concerned. I wanted this to be low-level, nonviolent offenders,” said Sullivan, Alaska’s former attorney general. “And I thought the original version wasn’t narrow enough in that regard. So that was a big, big component from my perspective, to make sure that’s who it’s targeting.”  

Sullivan is one of four Republicans to sign on as co-sponsors in recent weeks. Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Steve Daines of Montana have also committed to backing the bill.  

Grassley and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, have been working “day and night” to garner GOP backing, according to Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who also supports the legislation.  

The Judiciary Committee approved the criminal justice bill 15-5 in October. All nine Democrats supported the bill, along with six Republicans, though five GOP senators voted against it. Those Republican opponents suggested the bill would lead to the early release of dangerous criminals, who could commit violent crimes again.  

[Related: Popular Criminal Justice Bill Poses Political Risk] Durbin said he talked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about the bill, and the Kentucky Republican told him,”‘I need more demonstration of support form Republicans before I call this bill on the floor.”  

Outside groups supporting the bill have also been conducting meetings with senators, focusing on those in tight re-election races and those who represent states that are overhauling their own criminal justice overhauls.  

This month, the USA Justice Action Network brought together advocates from groups ranging from the left-leaning Center for American Progress to the conservative FreedomWorks to hold meetings on Capitol Hill.  

“In not one of these meetings have they been told a flat ‘no,’” said Holly Harris, the Justice Action Network’s executive director.  

“Many of them are supportive, they’re just not ready to be publicly supportive,” Harris said. She later added, “I think they want to read through the changes.”  

Harris suggested that the first action on criminal justice legislation could come from the House, where the Judiciary Committee is considering a series of bills, and has already passed two out of committee. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., who supports a criminal justice overhaul, and has pledged to bring the measures to the floor this year.  

“With an overwhelming vote out of the House, which again I think we’ll get, … I think there will be enormous pressure on the Senate to act,” said Harris.

Contact Bowman at

 and follow her on Twitter at



Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

Recent Stories

Florida’s Rick Scott enters race to be next Senate GOP leader

Louisiana abortion drug bill latest front in post-Dobbs fight

Capitol Lens | Grant-ing access

Democrats refer ‘big oil’ investigation to Justice Department

Congress appoints Army veteran Thomas Austin as new architect of the Capitol

Bynum’s primary win boosts Democrats’ chances to flip Oregon seat