Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) named a state corrections chief yesterday whose top priorities include reducing the number of criminals behind bars by placing some nonviolent offenders in community-based rehabilitation programs.

Ehrlich nominated Mary Ann Saar, 62, a Democrat with ties to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), as his secretary of public safety and correctional services. If confirmed by the Senate, Saar would oversee an agency with an annual budget of nearly $1 billion and with responsibility for housing about 28,000 prisoners, supervising former convicts on probation or parole and tracking suspects awaiting trial.

Ehrlich's choice underscores his mixed approach to crime and punishment -- supporting some traditional tough-on-crime policies such as executions and stricter penalties for gun crimes, while at the same time embracing innovative solutions for treating juvenile and adult offenders.

It also comes as a growing tide of cash-strapped states are letting prisoners go free rather than paying the tab to keep them behind bars. Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, would not say whether the governor has any immediate plans to release any who are currently incarcerated.

"The governor believes that nonviolent offenders can be treated in a compassionate and cost-effective manner with alternatives to the conventional prison system," Fawell said.

In addition to Saar, Ehrlich has chosen a Democrat to head his Department of Juvenile Services, enlisting former Baltimore delegate Kenneth Montague in a mission to treat "savable" young criminal offenders in a more humane environment instead of locking them up as adults. And while Ehrlich was faced with difficult budget choices, he managed to find more money for drug treatment programs and for the public defenders who represent indigent criminals.

Saar, a former probation officer, became the state's first female deputy state's attorney in Baltimore. She worked for Schaefer when he was mayor of Baltimore and when he became governor, serving as secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services. After a stint working for the governor of Maine, she returned to Maryland and served as Mikulski's state director.

Saar said she hopes to eliminate a long list of prisoners waiting to enroll in educational programs, saying such programs are proven to reduce recidivism rates. And while Ehrlich may have to build more housing to alleviate prison crowding, Saar said that should not be the long-term solution.

Building new prisons and housing spiraling populations is an expensive prospect, and governors across the country are looking for alternatives. After decades of passing stiffer sentencing laws that increased the nation's prison population fivefold since 1970, states are now looking to let nonviolent offenders loose.

In Kentucky last month, Gov. Paul Patton (D) granted an early release to 567 nonviolent prisoners, leaving prosecutors furious even as he averted a deficit in his corrections budget. That same month, Oklahoma's outgoing Republican governor asked the parole board to recommend 1,000 nonviolent inmates for early release. Other states are reconsidering mandatory minimum drug sentences.

As other governors have done, Ehrlich wants to cut hundreds of corrections jobs. But state corrections officials recently testified that they would be more than 600 guards short.

"A bunch of states with severe budget crises are struggling to reform their correction systems," said Sara Mogulescu of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which advises states on sentencing policy reforms. "The governor of Maryland is not alone."