Five days after he announced his candidacy for governor of Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II showed a side of himself seemingly at odds with his reputation as a tough law-and-order conservative.
The Virginia attorney general stood proudly at a news conference in late 2011 announcing the exoneration of a Richmond man who had spent 27 years in prison after being falsely convicted of rape. Cuccinelli had personally championed the man’s innocence, a sign of the broad evolution in Cuccinelli’s views on crime and punishment that would also lead him to argue that a frugal government should be more discerning about whom it puts behind bars.
“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.
More than half of the states have responded to the new landscape by enacting sentencing and other reforms since 2007, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which works with states and has tracked the changes in blue and red areas of the country. California, a reliably Democratic state, last year modified its “three strikes” sentencing law, which called for decades-long prison terms after even a minor third felony conviction. Republican-led Georgia recently relaxed its “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws, lowered penalties for some drug crimes and created substance abuse treatment programs for inmates.
Virginia, where the violent crime rate has fallen 45 percent since 1994, has not embraced such far-reaching changes. It has executed more people than any state except Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
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.