Some conservatives have taken such stands after serving in prison themselves, like the late Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, and Pat Nolan, a former Republican California legislator. Nolan points out that conservatives like Texas Gov. Rick Perry have turned down proposals to build new prisons and have stepped up drug treatment programs instead.
Conservative legislators in Congress and the states have also joined with black Democratic colleagues in attempts to reduce the shocking levels of rape in prison. And conservative as well as liberal prosecutors have stepped up DNA testing and have exonerated those who prove to have been wrongly convicted.
The most systematic expression of such views is found in the late Harvard Law professor William Stuntz's book "The Collapse of American Criminal Justice." Stuntz, a Republican and evangelical Christian beloved by his mostly liberal colleagues, argued that an excess of criminal statutes and undue power in the hands of prosecutors and police have resulted in an unfairly large number of people in prison.
Looking back in history, he pointed that immigrant groups in cities a century ago were allowed to police their own communities, while today in many heavily black areas police and prosecutors are accountable to largely white suburban electorates.
My own historical research indicates that rates of crime, violence and substance abuse among Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century were about as high as those rates for black Americans from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
But by the late 19th century, after a long generation, crime rates among the Irish fell sharply. Something similar seems to be happening among black Americans, so many of whom are descendants of the vast migration from the rural South to the big cities of the North in the mid-20th century.
In any case, there's a strong case to be made that stringent anti-crime measures that were, after some years, effective at reducing crime are no longer necessary now that violent crime rates have gone down.
So just as facts have prompted liberals to abandon stricter gun control, facts seem to be persuading conservatives to abandon tough anti-crime laws they once championed.