ATLANTA — The number of African-Americans being locked up in Georgia’s prison system has dropped to historic lows.

The trend represents a monumental shift in the way Georgia is punishing nonviolent offenders, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

While prison admissions have dropped nearly 19 percent in the past eight years, the incarceration of black inmates fell by 30 percent, according to records from the Georgia Department of Corrections.

The number of black inmates entering the prison system last year was at its lowest level in decades, records show.

Georgia has long been condemned for its mass incarcerations of African-Americans, which has decimated communities across the state, the newspaper reported.

The imprisonment of tens of thousands of African-Americans has “hollowed out neighborhoods of parents and employable men,” said James Forman Jr., author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” ”It’s just been devastating.”

Black people make up nearly a third of Georgia’s population and nearly two-thirds of its prison population.

But records show that those numbers are turning around.

In 2009, the peak year of prison admissions, African-Americans accounted for 61 percent of new inmates. Last year, the proportion was 52 percent.

Forman, a Yale law professor who grew up in Atlanta, said he is heartened by the trends in prison admissions.

“People are finding out there are more economically efficient and morally compassionate alternatives to prison,” he said.

In past decades, most people argued that reducing the prison population would simply free more criminals to commit more crimes, Forman said.

“Now that both the crime rate and prison numbers are going down at the same time, maybe more people will be open to considering even more aggressive reforms because that argument was taken away.”

Three things have caused much of the drop in the number of people sent to prison in Georgia, the Journal-Constitution reported.

First, the crime rate is down. Second, the state has expanded “accountability courts” such as drug courts as an alternative to prison. And third, the state has altered the definition of “felony” for burglary, theft and shoplifting. Previously, anyone stealing more than $500 in goods or cash was charged with a felony; that threshold is now $1,500.

“From a national vantage point, Georgia continues to set a very high bar for other states in both the approach it’s taken and the results it’s getting,” said Adam Gelb, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.

“What’s happening here resonates loudly in capitals across the country where people understand the significance of a large, conservative Southern state making such aggressive and comprehensive reforms,” he said.