“All it takes is one” is what I keep hearing. I hear those words echoed all throughout society, from local electeds to those in the highest halls of power as I advocate for change in our system. They are referring to the next Willie Horton, a man convicted of murder who, out on a weekend furlough committed assault, robbery and rape over 30 years ago in 1987.
Since the successful fear mongering campaign was used in the 1988 presidential election, politicians have used similar horror tactics administering public frenzy to combat any criminal justice reforms. Other politicians who may want reform, have also bought in to the idea “all it takes is one,” agreeing that one person’s actions speak for an entire class of people (without their consent). Subsequently, many reform efforts get botched as our community’s representatives fear an end to their personal careers as politicians.
The use of the next Willie Horton is about politics, not policy. It is about politicians’ jobs and most can argue, about systemic oppression and a government’s financial gain. If the fear of the next Willie Horton was about putting proper policies in place, the United States would have the most effective judicial system in the entire world. But it is no secret that current policies are not working. With a 68% national recidivism rate, the numbers clearly state that our nation’s current solution for crime is ineffective. If there was a car company who released cars on our roads and had an annual 68% car recall rate, that company would be shut down immediately. Similarly, if there was a meat company who had a 68% recall rate because of health concerns, it too would be shut down immediately. However, when it comes to today’s prisons, we continue to ignore our failing system which promises successful practices to taxpayers, but fails to deliver it.
Because of politics, many policies get put into place that actually stimulate violence. Prisons are divestments. They take away from our communities and the people living in it consequently become recipients of poverty, substandard education, inadequate housing and deprivation of direct services such as mental and physical healthcare.
Instead, thanks to public manipulation and the weaponizing of fear, we continue to pass policies where the allocation of money is misplaced. Those policies promise an illusion of safety. Law enforcement needs therefore, become excessive and gluttonous. We then see growing investments in law enforcement to enforce new regulations. The United States is globally ranked 27th in healthcare and 27th in education, yet we lead the world when it comes to our usage of confinement. It is hard to ignore the causal relationship between poor education and healthcare with laws, policing, and incarceration.
Phobia of what may happen form our policies. This misplaced phobia drives a determined society into accepting that lengthy or a lifetime of confinement is a proper strategy for violence and crime prevention. Unfortunately, the next Willie Horton may come. I hate to say this. But
that person should be held properly accountable for their own actions, as should our systems that do not provide proper services to people who need them the most. Just as we cannot punish all Muslims for one radical person’s attack, we cannot punish all white men for Trump’s repulsive leadership. Similarly, we cannot punish all incarcerated people for the next Willie Horton by challenging reforms and using one man’s actions as a scare tactic to promote mass static incarceration.
Adnan Khan is the Executive Director and co-founder of Re:Store Justice which he co-founded while incarcerated. Adnan was sentenced to 25 years to life under the Felony/Murder rule at the age of 18. While in prison, he inspired, launched and worked on the Felony/Murder rule legislation (Senate Bill 1437) with his organization, Re:Store Justice. The bill passed and after serving 16 years, in January 2019, Adnan was the first person re-sentenced under the bill he helped create. In addition, during his incarceration, he created FIRSTWATCH, a media filmmaking project produced entirely by incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison that still produces short films today.
His sentence was also commuted by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2018.
Today, he is continues his advocacy work nationally as well as internationally. He is an Art for Justice Fellow and is on the California Reentry Enrichment Grant steering committee.