A big-shot millionaire being hustled off to prison tends to release a gut-rush of satisfaction among the public. For once, justice nabbed the rich criminal; coddling didn't prevail.

Some of this sentiment surrounds the case of Paul Thayer, the former board chairman of LTV Corp. and a deputy defense secretary who was sentenced in Washington on May 8 to four years in prison and fined $5,000.

Thayer's crime was obstructing justice. He and another defendant, Billy Bob Harris, a Dallas stockbroker, pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about their stock tips and insider trading. Thayer, the board chairman turned schemer, had a big mouth and, he claimed, a bigger heart. He spread confidential word among select friends on pending stock deals and the killings to be made. None of the $3 million in realized profits, Thayer said, went into his own already deep pockets.

The federal judge in this case -- Charles Richey -- said at sentencing time that the integrity and credibility of the judicial system were at stake: To uphold the system's honor, "We must treat people equally."

That sounds fair enough, except the question is still unanswered: What does caging a man have to do with the court's integrity and credibility? Instead of treating Thayer equally with the ordinary offender -- who is disproportionately poor, minority and unconnected -- why not give them both the equal opportunity for punishments other than prison?

Judges are torn between sentencing criminals to negative punishment or positive punishment. The pressure on Judge Richey was created in part by the publicity surrounding the case. Thayer was a big fish and the public was looking to see if still again a wiggling off the hook would occur. Some 60 friends of Thayer -- from Gerald Ford and Barry Goldwater to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff -- had written to the court to say that because the defendant was a patriot, hard worker and all-around swell fellow he should be spared a prison stretch.

The effect was to put the judge's judiciousness on trial. Would he be another of those turn-'em-loose judges? Would he deal in double-standard justice by which the poor get sent to prison but the rich don't?

A judge with imagination and grit would have resisted the easy out of prison and, instead, punished Thayer in other -- more effective -- ways. In addition to the letters from Thayer's powerful chums, Judge Richey also had been approached by another group, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. This is an Alexandria-based organization that sees prisons as the last resort for punishment, not the first. It, too, wants criminals to be treated equally -- as human beings, not beasts to be caged in hellholes. Prison systems in 31 states have been ruled unconstitutional.

The center had submitted to the court a detailed proposal that had as a sentencing option the placement of Thayer with a Dallas group called the Center for Nonprofit Management. He would have worked 40 hours a week for as long as the court ordered to develop the planning, management and marketing skills of the center's clients: halfway houses, arts groups, day-care operations. "He could have made a contribution that was needed," said Robert Weiss, the director of the Dallas group.

To the make-'em-suffer school of penology, such a sentence smacks of cushiness. This is where enlightened judges come in -- to explain to the public the obvious. There is, first, the waste of up to $25,000 or $30,000 a year in some states to incarcerate a criminal. The other waste -- the talents and energies of prisoners -- is also a massive squandering.

As many as 70 percent of the inmates in federal institutions are nonviolent criminals: embezzlers, forgers, tax cheats. Large numbers have skills that go wasted in prison. Instead of five years of doing nothing, why not five years -- or double it to 10 -- of teaching reading and writing to the illiterate, or painting the houses of the elderly poor, or collecting food for the soup kitchens?

Those are among the alternative sentences that some progressive judges have been imposing. The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives tells of a recent survey that involved 100 random sample cases in which criminals -- white-collar and street -- were punished by means other than prison. Ninety-five percent did not commit a second crime, a rate well above that of former inmates.

The U.S. attorney who sought imprisonment for Thayer praised Richey's decision by saying that the sentence will "send an important message" to business people. This is the deterrence argument, long repeated. If prisons deterred, America would have one of the world's lowest crime rates.