ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after he took office this year, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes addressed one of the state's most serious problems with a decision sure to prompt controversy. To do something about packed prisons, the new governor selected Gordon C. Kamka, who had dared to suggest that Maryland consider imprisoning fewer people rather than building more prisons. That drew predictable -- though incorrect -- criticism from certain legislators and police officials that Mr. Kamka advocated the indiscriminate release of dangerous criminals.

But increasingly, state and local officials throughout the country are turning to an emphasis on prudent ways to reduce their swollen prison populations; and Mr. Kamka's views are winning important new support from the state's police chiefs. At the annual conference of the Maryland Police Chiefs Association, some previously skeptical chiefs discovered to their relief that a thoughtful early-release policy for certain prisoners need not be a license for stepped-up violent crime and increased community fear. Mr. Kamka explained that he is not talking about haphazardly releasing prisoners, but about identifying low-risk offenders -- many of whom are serving relatively short sentences -- and treating them in other ways: with work-release programs, tightly supervised paroles, placement in smaller facilities and other arrangements.

It is not that police offocials or politicians are turning "soft on crime" or that corrections officials around the country don't believe in incarceration anymore. Mr. Kamka noted, for example, that 1,100 new beds are under construction in Maryland prisons; that is different from simply building more huge central prisons from which many inmates return to the streets as greater menaces than when they left their communities. There are other practical considerations, such as cost. In Virginia, for example, state corrections officials -- confronted with high incarceration rates, overcrowding and projections of enormous costs to keep imprisoning people at present rates, are also releasing nonviolent inmates to relieve pressure.

The increased support of police chiefs for these improved approaches is important to public understanding of what is happening, as well as to what reception such views receive in state legislatures -- where all too often it has been poltically easier either to ignore the issues entirely or to oppose any modification of prison policies.