“There is an expectation that the generic Republican position is tough on crime,” Cuccinelli said in an interview Thursday. “But even that has budget limits, particularly on the prison side.’’
Two decades after Republican George Allen charged into the Virginia governorship by vowing to eliminate parole for violent offenders, a rhetorical shift among the state’s leading conservatives reflects changing attitudes toward criminal justice nationwide.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. underscored the new dynamic last week when he announced reforms aimed at reducing sentences for some low-level offenders and slowing massive growth in the nation’s prison population. Republicans, who have targeted Holder on other issues, were generally supportive. The attorney general urged passage of legislation that has been introduced in Congress with bipartisan support that would give judges more discretion in applying stiff sentences to some drug crimes.
One person who discussed the plans with Holder said that the Obama administration felt like the political terrain was safe to make those kinds of policy changes because of the “conservative cover.’’ The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussion was private.
Amid fiscal problems caused in part by massive prison populations and research showing that mass incarceration causes social harm, some leading conservatives have been pushing for reforms.
A generation ago, Republicans savaged Democrats as soft on crime, until former President Bill Clinton and others joined the GOP in a crackdown that continued even as the nation’s violent crime rate plummeted to historic lows.
“This is a fundamental shift in how we see criminal justice,’’ said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies crime and police. “There is a growing awareness of the fiscal and social costs of our great experiment in mass incarceration, and the balance has shifted from trying to look unrelentingly tough to asking what works best.’’
In a 1994 Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans called crime the nation’s most pressing problem. Last month, that number was 2 percent. Other surveys show that fewer Americans support mandatory prison terms for offenders than in the mid-1990s, and fewer believe courts are too lenient with criminals.
During the same period, the nation’s violent crime rate has fallen nearly by half, according to FBI data. Yet the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent since 1980.