Led by the late Republican campaign operative Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign seized on the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murder who was allowed out of prison on a weekend furlough designed to aid the reintegration process. While out, Horton raped a woman. The highlighting of the crime by Bush and his allies proved devastating to Dukakis, who at one point had a double-digit lead in some polls.

Dukakis said research showing that harsh sentences did more harm than good was not readily available during his presidential campaign — something that has changed in recent years. He also said the financial strain of incarceration, particularly at the state level, has helped drive the push for changes.

When states look at proposals “that seem to work a hell of a lot better at much less cost, than I don’t care where you’re coming from ideologically, it seems to me we ought to be exploring those kinds of things, and that’s what’s happening,” Dukakis, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said.