AUGUSTA, Maine — Overall crime in the state dropped last year for the first time since 2009, according to a report released Wednesday by the Maine Department of Public Safety.
But the state’s top police official tempered the good news by adding that drugs remain a big problem in Maine and a factor in many of the total 35,074 criminal offenses reported in 2012.
The lower total number of offenses reported to police in 2012 compared with 35,615 during 2011, according to information released by Public Safety’s Uniform Crime Reporting Division.
Overall crime dropped 1.5 percent in 2012 after a 2.8 percent increase in 2011 and a 3.6 percent increase in 2010. The numbers are based on reported crimes from local, county and state law enforcement agencies.
Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said there’s one factor that has been driving many crimes in the state.
“D-R-U-G-S. Drugs,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “The fact that we had 56 pharmacy robberies [last year] for opiates is alarming. We have a significant drug problem. It’s not only driving robberies, but also burglaries. Some continue to target the elderly because there’s a sense that elderly have prescription drugs in medicine cabinets.”
All but three of the 15 crime categories listed saw decreases in 2012 from the previous year. Only juvenile arrests (up 0.6 percent), domestic violence (4.5 percent) and robbery (13.8 percent) saw increases from 2011.
Morris attributed the sharp increase in robberies in 2012 solely to the 56 pharmacy robberies, which is a state record. Without the pharmacy robberies, he said, robberies would have slightly decreased. There were 370 robberies in 2011 compared with 421 in 2012.
So far this year, the number of pharmacy robberies is drastically lower with only four having been committed to date.
“I think the fact that we apprehended probably 90 percent of those who committed these robberies has put a dent in their ability to do another one,” said Morris.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross agreed with Morris that drugs are a major problem.
“It’s driving everything,” said Ross. “It’s very, very serious. A lot of stuff we’re seeing is to support drug habits.”
Morris also noted a side effect of illegal drug use: The number of drug-affected births is on the rise.
“In 2005, records indicate that 165 drug-affected babies were born in the state. In 2012, there were 779 drug-affected babies born in Maine. This includes illicit and prescription drugs,” said Morris, who called the figures “appalling.”
“[Numbers from a month ago] in 2013 show there are 306 drug-affected babies with 228 being from illicit drugs. If those numbers hold true, there will be more than 1,000 this year,” he added.
According to Wednesday’s report, the number of homicides has stayed fairly consistent the past five years. There were 26 homicides in 2012, 28 in 2011, 24 in 2010, 26 in 2009 and 31 in 2008. Of the homicides in 2012, five were drug-related, according to Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland.
There were 35,074 reported crimes in 2012, meaning there were 26.4 offenses per 1,000 people in Maine. The violent crime rate in the state continues to be one offense per 1,000 population compared with the national average of four per 1,000. Violent crimes are identified by the department as murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery.
“Maine is still absolutely one of the safest places to be,” said Morris.
Morris called a significant increase in domestic violence “disappointing.” Last year’s 4.5 percent jump in such crimes mirrored a 4.6 percent jump in 2011. Reported domestic violence assaults decreased 8 percent in 2008, 0.5 percent in 2009 and 3.3 percent in 2010.
“It’s my hope that the increase in domestic assaults is because victims are more likely to report the crime because of greater response by law enforcement and the assistance available from many support groups around Maine to help victims,” Morris said in a statement.
There were 23 fewer rapes cases reported in 2012 than in 2011, representing a 5.9 percent drop.
However, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault released a statement on Wednesday saying that rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States.
Aggravated assault numbers have yo-yoed in the past five years. Aggravated assaults involve serious injury and usually a weapon.
After a nearly 11 percent rise in aggravated assaults from 2010 to 2011, there was a 4.7 percent decrease last year from 843 cases to 803.
Reports of arsons also have not been consistent from year to year.
Last year, there were 226 reported arsons compared with 260 the year before, representing a 13.1 percent drop. In 2008, there was a 22.6 percent decrease in arson, but 2009 saw a 29.3 percent increase. In 2010, there was a 0.8 percent increase.
Property damage caused by arsons was estimated at $3,980,230 in 2012 versus $6,010,974 in 2011.
Auto thefts dropped for the fourth time in the last five years with 990 vehicles stolen in 2012 compared with 1,074 in 2011. That represented a 7.8 percent decrease in the crime category.
Only 14 fewer thefts were reported last year — 24,812 — from the previous year — 24,826.
In all, the value of stolen property was $28,001,214 in 2012, with police recovering $7,164,405 of it, or 25.6 percent. In 2011, the value of stolen property was $29,652,360.
Although there was a drop in overall crime, Sheriff Ross said his department is busier than ever.
“In the late 1990s, we were receiving 8,500 complaints a year. Today, we’re at 14,000,” said Ross.
Penobscot County Jail is well over capacity, he said.
“Our jail is exploding with inmates. We’re overpopulated by 40 [inmates],” said Ross. “We’ve been 81 percent overpopulated in the last six months.”
Ross speculated that the overpopulation was due to people committing more serious crimes, which leads to longer sentences.
But longer sentences don’t always deter people seeking drugs, said Morris.
“They are sick with addiction. It doesn’t matter if we increase the time in jail, they don’t care. They don’t think about it,” he said. “They’re so sick and they need to fix that sickness.”
Morris said the statistics show where police need to increase their attention.
“Our primary focus needs to remain on drugs, drugs, drugs,” he said. “If we can continue to work on the drug problem, we will reduce robberies, burglaries, homicides and drug-affected babies.”