When inmates finished serving time in Columbia's state prisons, their first encounter with the outside world would often be a capital city bus stop where they were dropped off to catch a ride home.

The problem was: prostitutes, drug dealers and other unsavory characters were well aware of this arrangement and would hang around waiting to lure the newly released convicts with illicit temptations.

"Some of these guys were not even out of prison for an hour, and they would have the hook right back in them," S.C. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said.

Prison officials now have a different strategy, working to arrange rides from family or friends so inmates can avoid the bus stop and the enticements that lurk there. It's part of a new approach to sentencing and rehabilitation in South Carolina that has helped bring about a sizable drop in the number of ex-cons returning to the state's prisons in recent years, state officials said.

A study released this summer noted an 18 percent drop in recidivism in the Palmetto State, a decline surpassed only by North Carolina among the eight states involved in the review, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the National Re-entry Resource Center.

The study tracked the number offenders who returned to prison in the three-year period after their release in 2010, then compared that number with the three-year recidivism rate for inmates set free in 2007. Nearly 34 percent of the 2007 group landed back behind bars, compared to about 28 percent of the 2010 group, the study found.

Suzanne Brown-McBride, deputy director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said South Carolina and other states curbed crime, saved money and lightened the load on their prisons by refocusing on rehabilitation.

These efforts have been aided, Brown-McBride and others said, by the federal Second Chance Act of 2008, which authorized grants for initiatives aimed at helping offenders with housing, education, health, employment and mentoring so they can successfully re-enter society. Congress is expected to consider reauthorizing the act next month.

The House has tentatively appropriated $45 million for the program, while the Senate has set aside $20 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance.

In South Carolina, the act has provided about $500,000 for a "smart probation" program run by the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services and $299,935 for an adult mentoring program run by the nonprofit Alston Wilkes Society, according to Michael Clark, public affairs director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Not everyone is sold on the Second Chance Act. David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has testified four times before Congress about the act, and he laments the lack of empirical research to support claims that the programs it funds are working. Though recidivism may well be going down, that could just be a societal trend unrelated to the funding, he said.

"Right now we like to throw a lot of money at things, and Congress is perfectly happy to spend that money without accounting for whether it is for something meaningful or not," he said.

Stirling, however, said South Carolina has made strong progress with recidivism since the Legislature passed sentencing reform measures in 2010 aimed at keeping the worst criminals behind bars and managing more non-violent offenders in the community.

"We're diverting more folks from prison, which means they are not coming to prison and learning to be professional criminals," he said. "They're staying on the street and getting help with their addictions, getting training, getting jobs - and that's a good thing."

An overhaul of the state's Youthful Offender Act program led to better screening of young convicts to determine how long they should stay behind bars and enhanced monitoring in the community to make sure they were adhering to curfews, staying off drugs and getting jobs, Stirling said. The program, which had struggled with a recidivism rate of 55 percent or more, now has a 92 percent success rate, he said.

Inside the prisons, corrections staff have worked to match job training with available positions in the state, use "tele-psychiatry" to better connect mentally ill inmates with outside help and begin video visitation sessions to keep inmates connected with their families who can't make it to the prisons, Stirling said.

Peter O'Boyle, spokesman for the probation and parole department, said agents now use specialized computer software to assess offenders and guide decisions about supervision and services. They also try to work through minor violations rather immediately tossing people back in jail for running afoul of their release terms, he said.

Between 2010 and 2013, this approach led to 1,611 fewer offenders being sent to prison for probation violations, saving the state $12.5 million in incarceration costs, O'Boyle said. "Our job is not to just supervise people, and if they screw up, put them in prison," he said. "It's about rehabilitating them, so they can function on the outside like the normal population does."