Yet even the commonwealth’s toughest law-and-order Republicans have moderated their positions on some crime issues and advocated for defendants’ rights. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a former prosecutor, this year reduced the time it takes nonviolent felons to regain their voting rights, drawing praise from the NAACP.
McDonnell announced his decision a day after a committee set up by Cuccinelli reported that the governor could do more to streamline the procedures.
McDonnell had long supported the principle of restoring voting rights. Cuccinelli voted against several such measures when he was in the Virginia Senate. As recently as 2009, he called the move “a horrible, horrible idea.’’
But Cuccinelli said his religious views as a Catholic helped fuel a recent change of heart. “Honestly, there’s an element — and there’s always been an element for me — in redemption, of wanting to see re-integration,” he said.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is running against Cuccinelli for governor, said in a statement that Cuccinelli’s shift is “an election-year conversion.’’
The get-tough consensus
The campaign against crime that flooded prisons in Virginia and nationwide began as a reaction to urban riots, drug use and other perceived excesses of the 1960s and was fostered by fear of crime and opposition to pro-defendant court rulings, experts said. Politicians such as presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan ran in part on “law-and-order” platforms, and the crackdown was fully joined after Reagan was elected to the White House in 1980.
His administration declared war on drugs, and Congress, with bipartisan support, passed laws that established tough mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana and other drugs, especially crack cocaine. Republicans pilloried Democrats as soft on crime, particularly Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the party’s 1988 presidential nominee, but both parties supported anti-crime measures.
“It was motherhood and apple pie to be tough on crime,’’ said Victoria Toensing, a Washington lawyer who was a senior Justice Department official in the late 1980s.
The anti-crime wave peaked in 1994, said Michael C. Campbell, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. That year, California passed its three-strikes law, resulting in sentences that critics said were excessive. One three-time felon, for example, was sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison for stealing a single slice of pizza. Still, 20 other states would pass variants of the law by 2000.