The number of District jail inmates listed in a graphic accompanying a story yesterday about shrinking jail populations only of inmates awaiting trial. (Published 2/12/91)

The Washington area's jail population, after skyrocketing during the late 1980s, has declined dramatically within the last year, reversing a trend of extreme crowding that threatened jail safety and left local governments struggling to find millions of dollars for more jail cells.

In virtually every jurisdiction, the number of inmates plummeted by double-digit percentages when compared with peak populations in late 1989 and early 1990. The decrease ranges from 13 percent in the Prince William/Manassas detention center to 28.7 percent in the District's jail. The figures apply to jails used for pretrial detention and short-term sentences and do not include state prisons or the District's Lorton Correctional Complex.

In December, 5,585 inmates were housed in local jails, 531 fewer than at the same time in 1989, according to statistics compiled by The Washington Post. The reduction, officials say, has given them some relief but has not solved jail crowding problems in all jurisdictions.

Only Prince George's and Prince William counties were below jail capacity as of last month, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"We've been in a slide since about the middle of {March}, and that's not typical," said William Golightly, a District corrections administrator. "The year before had seen almost nonstop increases. We've been trying to track this, trying to see what's been happening."

Corrections officials say the lower inmate populations can be attributed in part to a significant drop in the number of drug arrests during the first half of last year and changes in the criminal justice system, which is placing more inmates in supervised release programs. Decreases in drug arrests, for example, ranged from 33 percent in Montgomery County to 15 percent in the District during the first seven to 10 months of 1990, primarily because of diminishing sales in the area's open-air drug markets.

As drug dealing has shifted inside, police said, it has become increasingly difficult to make arrests. But they said their efforts to fight drugs and other crimes have not diminished.

"All the chiefs were aware of the stresses from crowding," Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said. "But we did nothing to slow down arrests. That would have been inappropriate. There were times when we went to the jail {with prisoners} and were turned away."

The decline in the number of inmates has allowed jail officials, who in some cases were placed under court order to reduce populations and forced to suspend educational and rehabilitative programs, to ease back toward normalcy.

It has not affected plans by Northern Virginia officials to pursue a regional jail at Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County. But "if the trend continues next year, it may reduce the initial size of the facility," said Alexandria Sheriff James H. Dunning, who is working with other jail administrators on the project. As proposed, the regional jail could house as many as 2,400 inmates.

"The decline has given us some breathing room," said Fairfax County Sheriff Carl Peed. "It's allowed me to keep 80 prisoners from having to sleep on the floor . . . . I'm sure it's relieved tension. And it's also allowed us to cut back on overtime."

Alexandria corrections officials now double-bunk 77 inmates, compared with 187 in late 1989. Because of the decline, jail officials have been able to bring in more federal prisoners, which will result this year in a $500,000 windfall for the city.

Other jurisdictions face more austere times, but they too are benefiting from the smaller jail populations.

Some jail officials now have the time to rethink the size of planned jail additions and, faced with mounting budget deficits, have been able to delay plans for construction with less worry about excessive crowding. Some officials have proposed halting plans for jail expansion indefinitely.

Last month, Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner urged county officials not to pursue plans for a new jail, citing the decrease in inmates. Isiah Leggett, president of the County Council, said that Sonner's comments had "merit" but that Montgomery likely would pursue building a new jail. However, the jail would likely be smaller than some estimates, he said.

In Prince George's County, plans for a jail addition have been placed on hold because of budget constraints. As of Jan. 20, the jail was 67 prisoners below its capacity, officials said. "It's fortunate the way things have worked out," said Al Cohen, a Prince George's jail administrator.

In the District, which is under court-ordered population limits, officials have brought back 42 inmates sent to facilities across the country and are set to bring back 250 more.

But the decline in the number of prisoners "has not brought us to a point where we feel comfortable in managing our inmate population," said Walter B. Ridley, director of the D.C. corrections department. The District's detention facilities, including Lorton, recently remained 1,600 prisoners over capacity, according to statistics provided by COG. Ridley and other officials say the number of inmates in recent months has begun to rise.

Jail officials point to the decline in drug arrests as perhaps the single most important factor affecting the number of prisoners. Jail crowding problems across the Washington area accompanied the growth in use of crack cocaine and the subsequent declaration of war on drugs by police and politicians. In many jurisdictions, police initiated campaigns against open-air markets.

During the first 10 months of 1990, the District recorded 318 fewer drug arrests than during the same period in 1989, for example. In October of last year, the number of D.C. pretrial detainees stood at 1,203, or 451 fewer than in October 1989.

In Montgomery during the first nine months of last year, there were 720 fewer drug arrests than during the same period in 1989. In September of last year, there were 612 inmates, 233 fewer than in the same month a year earlier.

The growth of supervised jail release programs, which have diverted hundreds of inmates away from crowded cells, also has promoted the prison population decline, officials say. The use of the programs in response to crowding marked an evolution in the area's criminal justice system.

Consider how Prince William coped with its chronic crowding.

By March 1989, Prince William's jail, which was built for 175 inmates, housed 448, nearly three times its capacity. During the crisis, corrections officials closed the jail 35 times, turning away police with prisoners. In some instances, police had to use their stations to house inmates.

In about a year, three new jail facilities were opened at a combined cost of more than $8 million. Referrals to new and expanded supervised release programs increased. The county's release program for inmates convicted of misdemeanors leaped from 35 referrals in July to 128 a month currently, for example.

"These are all people who otherwise would have been in jails," said Christina Frank, director of Prince William's community corrections department.

Prince William's struggle has been mirrored in other jurisdictions.

"I have more alternatives now," said Calvin A. Lightfoot, Montgomery's director of corrections, estimating that electronic monitoring and other release programs had reduced the county's jail population by at least 100 inmates. "These programs were designed to bring the population down and to make for a better criminal justice system."

COMPARING PEAK POPULATIONS WITH DECEMBER 1990

Alexandria

Peak: October 1989 (512)

December 1990 (434)

Anne Arundel County

Peak: December 1990 (483)

December 1990 (483)

Arlington County

Peak: March 1990 (392)

December 1990 (338)

District of Columbia

Peak: October 1989 (1,654)

December 1990 (1,185)

Fairfax County

Peak: September 1989 (987)

December 1990 (839)

Howard County

Peak: September 1989 (217)

December 1990 (185)

Loudoun County

Peak: May 1990 (102)

December 1990 (86)

Montgomery County

Peak: September 1989 (845)

December 1990 (627)

Prince George's County

Peak: June 1989 (1,365)

December 1990 (1,034)

Prince William County

Peak: March 1989 (448)

December 1990 (389)

SOURCE: Area Jurisdictions