While we thought the sentencing reform that lawmakers enacted in 2010 had the potential to slow the number of inmates going into our state’s prisons and save tax dollars, we had little hope it would happen as soon – or dramatically – as it has.

Since the changes, the number of inmates has dropped by more than 2,700, to fewer than 23,000, the Corrections Department has closed two prisons and the savings for 2012 alone was $3 million.

That’s a stark and welcome turnaround from dire predictions that our long underfunded, overcrowded and increasingly dangerous prison system would be deluged with new convicts. In 2010, the Department of Corrections was running a $27 million deficit, and the inmate population was projected to grow by 3,200 convicts by 2014; it would have cost $175 million to provide housing for those inmates and $66 million annually to care for them.

But thanks to the new approach in the way we treat criminals, our prison system was spared the added burden. The effect of the new law can’t be overstated. Average daily population at our state’s prisons declined only six times from 1970 through 2012, based on information on the Department of Corrections’ website. Three of those drops have been in the past three years.

We commend lawmakers, judges and state officials for the progress. For the longest time, lawmakers – more bent on proving they were tough on crime than improving our state – refused to take obvious, common-sense steps to reduce spending on prisons. But that changed when legislators finally passed a law that acknowledged that overcrowding prisons with nonviolent criminals makes no sense – unless the intent is to turn low-risk offenders into more dangerous ones or to make sure there isn’t adequate space for the truly violent criminals.

While the new law strengthened penalties for violent crimes, it more importantly offered alternative sentences for nonviolent offenses. With almost half of our prisoners serving time for non-violent crimes, supporters expected that the law would eliminate the need to spend more on prison operations and new prisons.

There was no guarantee that judges would take full advantage of the law, which allows – but does not require – them to impose shorter sentences and encourages them to use alternative sentences. But judges obviously have taken advantage of the opportunity.

South Carolina should celebrate the surprising progress in this most unlikely area. And we must not let up; lawmakers must continually monitor the new approach and keep it on course.