When the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was passed, the United States established a program designed to encourage the hiring and training of disadvantaged people for whom there would otherwise be few job opportunities.

Under this program, millions in "CETA" funds were distributed by the federal government.

Some percentage of this money actually trickled down to the level at which disadvantaged people live. We can only guess at what percentage of the money was well spent and what percentage was misused, frittered away or just plain stolen.

Some time ago, Rep. John Cavanaugh (D-Neb.) looked into one small aspect of the CETA program. He concluded that the District of Columbia had mismanaged its distribution of funds, and he said so in a report he released last year.

Over the weekend, Cavanaugh had more to tell us about CETA funds. He released the results of a more thorough investigation conducted by the General Accounting Office at his request. It showed that more than $425,000 in CETA money had been distributed by the District government to prisoners at Lorton who are not eligible for release until 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991 and 2003.

You can be forgiven if, at this point, you are thinking that a man who is not supposed to be eligible for release from prison until the year 2003 may nevertheless be back on the street rather quickly.

A pessimist says, "They're wasting my tax dollars by trying to train criminals who are going to be locked up until they have long white beards." But a realist can argue that, as matters stand these days, even prisoners who are serving life terms ought to be taught a trade so that they can make a living when they get out. "Life," no longer means life; it means a couple of years. It's not a question of whether they'll get out, but when .

There are now two dominant patterns in the sentencing of criminals, and they are both bad.

In the first pattern, the judge appears to throw the book at transgressors. Let us say the defendant is a man who has raped a housewife, killed her husband and his crippled father, and sold a suitcase full of heroin to the couple's teen-aged son.

The prisoner is sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the capital crimes, plus 99 years for being a drug dealer, passing counterfeit currency, carrying an illegal gun, breaking and entering, driving at 30 miles an hour in a 25-mile zone during the getaway and spitting on the sidewalk. They charge him with everything except the high price of gasoline and order that his sentences should run consecutively.

Yet the killer is very often back on the sidewalk -- and packing a gun again -- in a very short time. Either the normal parole procedures reduce his 'life' term to a few years, or his lawyer wins him a new trial, or when all else fails the guy just crashes out of the joint and goes back to living as he did before. And there are so many other fugitives at large that there is neither the manpower to bring him back nor a sense of urgency about apprehending him or any of the other fugitives who are roaming around loose.

The second pattern in sentencing was well illustrated in the front page story that staff writer Timothy S. Robinson did for Thursday's Washington Post.

In that report, Robinson told us that for a long time local drug offenders have been routinely offered a deal: plead guilty to a lesser offense and we'll drop the more serious charges.

Why did the government offer to enter into such deals? Because there are so many crimes. So many criminals are awaiting trial that there are not enough judges and prosecutors and courtrooms to handle them all.

It was felt that the only way to keep the docket reasonably clear was to let everybody plead guilty to a minor charge, take a slap on the wrist in punishment and then get back out there and peddle more drugs so that they could pay their fines and their lawyers.

But as of Thursday, Robinson reported, it was no more Mr. Nice Guy. "Law enforcement authorities here are instituting a major get-tough policy," he wrote. Oh, boy! Did he mean that from now on every offender would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law? Or, hell no! He was just telling us that from now on if the criminal wants to make a deal and plead guilty to a reduced charge, he will have to cooperate by squealing on his confederates.

And if he doesn't, by golly we will throw the book at him. But unfortunately, what we'll throw is a law book, and law books are filled with twists and turns that allow criminals to do pretty much as they please without fear of significant punishment. The worst that can happen is that a few of them might be sent up, and while they are in jail they might be unlucky enough to get caught in a GAO investigation into the misuse of CETA funds.