Has Obama Set Loose a New Willie Horton?

President Barack Obama is hoping there’s no Willie Horton among the 6,000 inmates being released early from federal prison.

Reducing the prison population is a key part of Obama’s push for criminal justice reform in his last year as president. He sees it as a way to both repair broken communities and spare taxpayers the cost of housing low-level criminals. A bipartisan coalition in Congress is on board, too.

But the mass release set to be completed Monday will test the resolve of this new consensus heading into an election year. The infamous Willie Horton ad is on the minds of activists on both sides: They haven’t forgotten how the grainy, black-and-white mug shot of a bearded black man helped sink Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign. As Massachusetts governor, “he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison,” says a narrator, before describing how Horton kidnapped a couple and raped the woman while out on furlough.

The people released between Friday and Monday are not first degree murderers–they’re low-level drug offenders, and almost a third are immigrants just headed for a different type of pre-deportation detention–but opponents of sentencing reform are already looking for the next Horton.

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Advocates are on guard, but hope their momentum is irreversible.

“Do I expect kind of nefarious attack ads to come out? Of course,” said Michele Jawando, a vice president at the Center for American Progress. “We’re at a turning point historically. Are we going to do something to fix the problem, or are we going to let fear guide us forward?”

By Washington standards, letting people out of prison is relatively easy. This batch is the result of a U.S. Sentencing Commission vote last year, which could spring as many as 46,000 inmates in the coming years.

The problem is, no one, including Obama, believes they’re ready to re-enter society. Nationwide, about two-thirds of former inmates will get arrested again within three years of release. It’s hard to get a job as an ex-con, and many states restrict public assistance for felons, so it’s easy for them to fall back into crime.

Obama directed his administration to delay asking about job applicants’ criminal histories on Monday, and he’s calling on Congress to “ban the box,” as advocates call it for federal hiring and federal contractors. Getting rid of the checkbox on so many job applications asking if the applicant has a criminal record would give ex-cons more of a chance to make their case before being automatically ruled out, advocates contend. The administration also announced new grants for re-entry education and legal aid to get criminal records cleared.

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