COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) –A law most South Carolinians have probably never heard of has saved the state almost half-a-billion dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States. The Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010 has reduced the number of state prison inmates by an estimated 8,000, according to the Pew analysis.

In 2009, the state expected its prison population to grow to almost 28,000. That would have required the state to build a new prison, which would have cost an estimated $317 million to build and another $141 million in increased operating costs.

Instead, after the law took effect, the number of inmates has dropped to just under 21,000. Rather than building a new prison, the state has closed six, and is saving $33 million in operating costs because of the reduced population.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, who led the fight for the bill in 2010, says, “When Gov. Sanford signed the bill into law, he told me then he agreed with me that this bill was probably the most important measure that he had signed during his administration, that we would know the full effect of it he said for 20 years.”

The law increases the penalties on some violent criminals and reclassified some crimes as violent. But it reduced sentences for many non-violent offenses, like first-offense drug possession, giving those people probation, community service, or drug treatment instead.

The recidivism rate, the number of prison inmates who commit more crimes after they’re released, has gone down. And FBI crime stats show that the crime rate in the state has continued to go down after the law took effect. The crime rate was already falling before the law, but it has continued to fall after. The crime rate was 5,137 per 100,000 residents in 2005 and was 3,798 last year.

“None of it would matter if we were not keeping our citizens safe, because crime rates have gone down, and so that’s what’s important,” Sen. Malloy says.

The House and Senate Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee heard a report Monday from Pew representatives, who say the law is being used as a model in other states.

The next step, lawmakers say, is to re-invest some of the money saved into the prison system by hiring more correctional officers and increasing their pay.

Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, says he also wants to revisit the part of the law that eliminates the possibility of parole for some criminals. “That creates a terrible safety situation for the correctional officers because an inmate that has no hope has no reason to behave, and that’s where a lot of your violence within the prison system itself comes from; it’s those people who have no hope of ever getting out,” he says.