Maryland and Virginia kept fewer people behind bars last year, in step with a nationwide trend that saw the first drop in states' prison populations since 1972.
Maryland held 4.6 percent fewer prisoners in 2009 than in 2008 -- one of the biggest decreases in the United States -- and Virginia held 0.5 percent fewer.
Nationwide, states housed 0.2 percent fewer inmates, though the federal prison population grew by 3.4 percent.
It absolutely is unprecedented. And that's what was shocking for us. Within the available data, going back 10 years, [prison population] had gone up for 10 years.
The drop is absolutely unprecedented, said Baron Blakley, an expert with Virginia's Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Maryland's shift -- 1,069 fewer prisoners last year, leaving the state with 22,255 inmates -- probably reflects new policing policies in Baltimore, said Marty Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office.
About 30 percent of the state prison system's inmates come from Baltimore, he said.
The number of arrests in Baltimore dropped after 2007, when the police commissioner eliminated the city's zero-tolerance crime policy and police started concentrating on violent, repeat offenders, said Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department.
In 2008 and 2009, there were 5 percent fewer arrests, Guglielmi said.
When you're reducing the amount at the front of the pipeline, that ultimately will have an effect on the end of the pipeline, Guglielmi said.
Other factors reducing the number of Baltimore arrests could be tighter budgets and fewer officers, Burns said.
In Virginia, experts say a reduction in cocaine availability is decreasing the number of state prisoners.
The state inmate population was 37,633 in May, down from 38,329 in July 2009.
A 30 percent drop in the number of felony drug arrests over the past few years drove the prison population decline, said Meredith Farrar-Owens, a member of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission.
Police are arresting fewer people for felony drug offenses because cocaine has become less available, according to Blakley.
The drug war in Mexico, increased coca eradication in Colombia and an expanding cocaine market in Europe mean less cocaine on the streets of Virginia, he said.
By: LIZ ESSLEY
June 28, 2010
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