"The Opinionator"pieceTimesherehere
In the 1990s, Democratic and Republican Congresses scrapped the Pell Grant program for prisoners, barred drug offenders from receiving federal student loans and cut highway money for states that did not revoke or suspend the driver's licenses of drug felons. Now leading politicians of both parties are proposing that states remove laws and regulations that wall off the ex-criminal class from the community. Rather than eliminating education and substance-abuse treatment programs, Congress may well finance them. ...

What has changed? It's true that crime rates have declined in recent years (notwithstanding a slight uptick last year), but for the last quarter of the 20th century, crime policy was impervious to fluctuations in street crime. If crime went up, politicians got tough on crime. If crime went down, politicians still got tough on crime. At the state level, at least, that is no longer the case--and a large shift in public opinion has much to do with it. In 1994, crime and health care were the two top issues that Americans thought the government should tackle. Nine years later, less than 1 percent of Americans named crime as a top political issue.

If safer streets had something to do with the change in public attitudes, so did another development: the changing place of crime in the national debate over moral values. Over the past decade, as the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have suggested, the culture war of the 1970s and 1980s that revolved around race has been replaced by one that revolves around religion. A side effect has been a radically different crime debate.
Noam Scheiber