With Congress currently considering several different approaches to criminal justice reform, interested parties have long noted that the current situation at the federal level is untenable, featuring stubbornly high recidivism rates, a ballooning prison population, and a Bureau of Prisons that constitutes an ever-growing proportion of the Justice Department’s budget.

In short, we aren’t getting the sort of return on investment—both in terms of cost, but most importantly, public safety—that we’ve come to demand of other areas of government.

In such situations, conservatives must take the lead when government has grown inefficient, which is why some recent opposition to reform from the right is so baffling.

Commentators have variously suggested that this effort is “bipartisanship at its worst,” or that our crime rate has declined in recent years because “we have taken crime more seriously” by keeping “serious criminals in jail, not letting them out” despite an entire body of scholarship to the contrary.

America’s crime rate has indeed fallen substantially in recent decades, but this is due in large part to a paradigm shift in what it means to be “tough on crime.”

Unfortunately, such commentary is long on histrionics—with suggestions that essentially equate re-evaluating mandatory sentences to allow for more tailored, individualized punishments as tantamount to Congress throwing open prison doors indiscriminately—and short on facts and experience which, hitherto, conservatives have prized.

America’s crime rate has indeed fallen substantially in recent decades, but this is due in large part to a paradigm shift in what it means to be “tough on crime.”

We can agree that keeping serious criminals in prison is an effective means of preserving public safety, but we must also recognize that the axiom of “putting people in jail and throwing away the key” does not apply to all offenders universally, and can actually be counterproductive.

Incarcerating non-violent offenders in the same population as more dangerous criminals has the effect of inculcating the former into a culture of criminality common among the latter, making them more of a risk to public safety upon release than when they originally went in.

“Tough on crime” policies, particularly mandatory sentences, tend to set such circumstances in stone, and vitiates the possibility of seeking out alternative, evidence-based programs that can divert amenable offenders into treatment.

Such programs are more cost-effective, and most importantly, have been proven to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

Recognition of this has been just one instance of states taking “crime more seriously,” and indeed, being smarter on crime.

There’s nothing conservative about allowing ourselves to become so inured to a “tough on crime” frame of mind that we would abandon tested alternatives that can yield better outcomes.

Consider Texas. Since 2005, Texas has created drug courts, instituted swift and certain sanctions for those in violation of their terms of release, and incentivized offenders to comply with terms of probation.

As a result of these reforms and others, Texas has realized a reduction in its incarceration rate of 12% since 2009, and its lowest crime rate since 1968—at the same time, it should be noted, as reserving mandatory sentences for only the most violent or repeat offenders.

Other conservative states have passed their own similar reforms in the last decade, and the Senate’s bill draws on these lessons for the federal system.

It’s worthwhile at this point to highlight an important misconception among those against reform: namely, that increased incarceration translates directly to lower crime rates.

While this may be true to an extent, studies have shown that only about 25% of our recent crime rate reduction can be attributed to imprisoning more people.

In fact, according to the Pew Trusts, those states that have reduced incarceration have enjoyed the largest concomitant reductions in their crime rates. Therefore, attempts to draw any meaningful correlation between the two is perilous, particularly when arguing that curbing mandatory sentencing will yield higher instances of crime.

Provisions including retroactivity where mandatory sentences have been shortened could indeed result in altered sentences, but such reductions would not be automatic, coming only after a court has considered various sentencing factors, including risk of recidivism, danger to the public, and prison misconduct.

In fact, every provision of the federal Senate bill that reduces a mandatory sentence is coupled with judicial oversight. Therefore, any suggestion that Congress would be “letting criminals out of prison” haphazardly is without merit.

The federal prison population has exploded by nearly 800 percent since 1980, fueled in large part by mandatory sentences that lock in definite stays behind bars, and don’t allow for judicial discretion that treat cases on an individualized basis.

Even without mandatory sentences, judges are still capable of levying tough penalties for serious offenses—and just as in states like Texas that have “tough on crime” reputations, this can be done without jeopardizing public safety.

Ken Cuccinelli is the former attorney general for Virginia, and a signatory to the Right on Crime statement of principles.