The number of homicides in New Jersey declined for the third consecutive year, state Attorney General Anne Milgram announced yesterday, echoing a drop in crime across the country.

Camden led the way in New Jersey with a decline from 55 to 33 homicides as of Dec. 21, a 40 percent reduction.

Statewide, New Jersey had 332 homicides in 2009 as of Dec. 21, compared with 369 as of Dec. 21, 2008, a drop of 10 percent.

Milgram attributed New Jersey's overall drop in violent crime to more effective law enforcement efforts, including antigang initiatives and seizures of illegal guns.

"We have now successfully decreased the number of murders in New Jersey three years in a row," Milgram said at a news conference, adding that this was the first time in a decade that homicides had decreased for three consecutive years. "This could not have happened without the commitment and hard work of the county prosecutors and local police chiefs."

Crime rates have also dipped across the nation, according to preliminary FBI statistics. The declines have puzzled experts because other economic downturns in the last half-century have resulted in higher crime rates.

Philadelphia reported 301 homicides as of Monday, compared to 331 as of the same date in 2008. Nationwide, murder and manslaughter dropped 10 percent for the first six months of the year.

Milgram also highlighted antigang initiatives that netted 4,597 arrests in 2009. Those arrests helped solve 22 homicides and prevent another 13, she said.

In Camden, 1,100 arrests were made last year. The city's police department, which falls under the supervision of the Attorney General's Office, was reorganized last year to put more officers on the street and improve communication between the department and the community.

Over the last two years in Camden, authorities made 1,414 arrests and seized 125 weapons, $455,222 in drugs, and $293,599 in cash.

Camden Councilman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, a former Camden police officer, cautioned against attributing the drop in homicides solely to law enforcement, saying that it could be the result of a combination of factors, including police work and community involvement.

Still, he welcomed the news, saying, "Any kind of decrease in crime in Camden is a good indication for the future."

In South Jersey, homicides declined in Burlington and Camden Counties but increased in Gloucester County.

Burlington County dropped from 13 homicides to 10 as of Dec. 21 and Camden County from 64 to 45. Gloucester County increased from 0 to 2.

Violent crimes in New Jersey dropped 1 percent in 2008 for the seventh consecutive year. Crime incidents were the second-lowest the state has seen in 15 years. Statistics for 2009 will not be compiled until 2010.

The Attorney General's Office also released other year-end statistics yesterday.

The Corruption Bureau charged 70 cases in 2009, a 9 percent increase over 2008, and the Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau charged 161 cases, a 48 percent increase over both 2008 and 2007.

"Once again we substantially increased the cases we charged in three priority areas, namely rooting out public corruption, fighting street gangs and organized crime, and targeting those who commit financial fraud, particularly those who prey on vulnerable investors and homeowners," Milgram said.

Among the notable corruption cases were the indictment of Assemblyman Joseph Vas, former mayor of Perth Amboy, who was charged with stealing approximately $5,000 in public funds to pay for personal purchases and illegally receiving $25,000 in home improvements free of charge from a city vendor, among other offenses.

Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone and his wife were charged with funneling $8,000 in state paychecks for legislative aides into personal and campaign accounts, while former Assemblyman Neil Cohen was charged with child pornography.

In what was likely one of her final major news conferences, Milgram said she had not decided yet what she wanted to do after leaving office. Her last day will be Jan. 19, and she plans to take a three-month vacation, visiting friends abroad, she said.

Milgram's successor is expected to be Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow, a Democrat who was picked by Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie for the job but has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.