Easy answer on prison furloughs eludes Dukakis. Public opinion makes Bush's job easier

The emotion-stirring accusation from Vice-President George Bush fits neatly into a TV sound bite: Why did Gov. Michael Dukakis let a first-degree murderer out of prison on a 48-hour pass? Willie Horton, sentenced to life without parole for a brutal 1974 killing, took off from an unsupervised furlough - his 10th - in June 1986. The following April he was recaptured after holding a Maryland couple hostage, during which time he raped the woman and stabbed the man.

The Bush campaign reportedly has filmed the couple for a campaign commercial. An independent pro-Bush group said it would air two ads on the subject starting last Tuesday on cable TV nationwide. The Horton incident was a tragedy, Dukakis admits, but the governor's defense doesn't fit into a 10-second TV snippet. Dukakis and his spokesmen offer:

Statistics. Forty-five states and the federal prison system have furlough programs (though few were as broad as Massachusetts' before it was amended in April, critics say). The overall ``escape rate'' for Massachusetts' program from 1972-87 was one escape for every 200 furloughs, according to the state's department of corrections. For first-degree lifers such as Mr. Horton, the rate was one escape for every 500 furloughs. And of the 13 first-degree lifers who escaped, 8 fled in the first three years of the program, which has been significantly tightened.

More statistics. Massachusetts' crime rate is down 13.4 percent over the past four years, more than any other state but one. It has the lowest murder rate of any industrialized state in the union. Yes, its prisons are overcrowded - because law-enforcement agencies are filling them faster than expected.

Comparisons. The state's furlough program has operated under three governors, including the Republican (Francis Sargent) who began it in 1972, and a conservative Democrat (Edward King, who has since switched to the GOP). Dukakis aides note that another governor, Ronald Reagan, faced a similar controversy when two murders were committed by furloughed prisoners in California. The prisoners were within three months of their release date when they were furloughed.

A counterattack. ``This, from the head of the South Florida Drug Interdiction Task Force that's been a flop?'' says James Dorsey, a Dukakis spokesman. ``This, from the man who was up to his neck in the decision to give arms to the Ayatollah?'' he says, suggesting that Mr. Bush was deeply involved in the Iran-contra affair.

For months after the Horton story broke, Dukakis stood by the furloughs-for-lifers policy. He faced overwhelming opposition from the state legislature, a citizen petition drive that netted 70,000-plus signatures in a few months, and a blizzard of news stories.

The public's ignorance about prison issues makes Bush's job easier. ``Latent public opinion is severe'' on prison issues, according to Princeton criminologist John DiIulio. It likely comes as a surprise to most that furloughs are so widespread; prisons ``only make news when something goes wrong,'' he says.

Only after the governor had been ``persuaded,'' he said, that the policy was ``at odds with our longstanding effort to ensure tough, consistent, and accountable sentencing practices'' did he quietly sign a bill last April that abolished furloughs for first-degree lifers. (He had vetoed just such a bill during his first term in 1976, saying it would have ``cut the heart out of efforts at inmate rehabilitation.'')

Meanwhile, the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune won a Pulitzer prize for its stories last year on the state's furlough policy, which the newspaper says ``amounted to a secret program to qualify killers for commutation by giving them weekend passes from jail.''

Far from the program's being ``secret,'' the public and press were ignorant, says Professor DiIulio. He points to an ``expos'e'' on state prisons written by a major Midwestern newspaper recently. ``All they were doing was reporting what had been in place for 10 years,'' he says.

There are sound, widely recognized reasons for furloughs, says Sheldon Krantz, an expert on sentencing and furloughs at the University of California, San Diego. ``They're good for the individual, and for the institution.''

The overwhelming majority of convicts will go back into society, and it makes sense to re-acclimate prisoners over a period of time. Furloughs help an inmate stay in touch with his family, an acknowledged rehabilitative plus. Furloughs ease prison management by relieving tension and serving as a behavior incentive. Public safety is better served in the long run, says state corrections commissioner Michael Fair, because state studies show furloughs help cut recidivism significantly.

``Beds'' is another, and perhaps the most compelling incentive, DiIulio says. Overcrowding is a critical problem in many prisons, including Massachusetts', and furloughs provide ``ways of moving people out the door,'' he says. Successful furloughs lead to parole and other community-based solutions, which are cheaper and make room for more dangerous prisoners. But DiIulio suspects that the Massachusetts program was qualifying prisoners for such programs incautiously. ``No one did anything wrong except Willie Horton,'' says Mr. Fair.

But why Willie Horton? He'd had drug and discipline problems in prison and his crime had been vicious. ``We're dealing with human behavior and human beings,'' says Massachusetts Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kathy Ayres, ``and there's an element of human error.''

Horton cleared the furlough application process; he appeared to have made changes in his life, Fair says. He had been out nine times and returned. Despite Horton's sentence of life without parole, the way the law was written still made him eligible for the furlough program. An advisory opinion from the state's Supreme Judicial Court had confirmed that in the '70s.

Massachusetts' program may have been a ``progressive'' anachronism in a prison-policy environment turned conservative during the '80s, says Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association. Many programs with similar provisions were set up around the country during the wave of prison reform that followed the Attica riot in September 1971. But most other furlough bills were rewritten and tightened by state legislatures in the early '80s, he says.

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