A unique one-man operation is about to come to an end.

Beginning New Year's Day, Washington juveniles arrested in Prince George's County will no longer be released to the custody of the Congress Heights-based Anacostia Washington Metropolitan Area juvenile justice Project -- the only agency in the District that Prince George's County courts recognize for juvenile release.

Prince George's juvenile authorities fear that their detention facilities will soon thereafter become overcrowded, and result in, as one juvenile counselor put it, "the needless detention of first offenders who are really good kids."

The man behind the juvenile justice project is Raymond Smith, its executive director, who created the program six years ago. He earns $11,000 a year, paid by CETA under an agreement that expires next month. "When I go," said Smith, "the project goes."

A former Lorton inmate, Smith has been working in neighborhood programs, mostly involving youths, for more than 16 years. At a meeting several years ago, juvenile authorities from Prince George's told him that they were having serious problems locating the parents of and providing transportation for District youngsters arrested in their jurisdiction.

Smith lobbied friends around the city for money, transportation and shelter to make his program a reality. He added follow-up counseling to his program's services and a pact was made with the Prince George's Court court system. All District juveniles arrested by the county and "deserving of a second chance" would be referred to him for counseling.

According to James Dedes, regional supervisor of Prince George's juvenile services administration, Smith's project provides "a hell of a service."

Dedes said Prince George's juvenile shelters are already overcrowded with county youths.

"When we can't contact a Washington parent for release," Dedes said, "we call Ray Smith and he picks them up." Dedes praised Smith for getting the youngsters to return for court dates: "They're meticulous about showing up. It's unprecedented."

Jim Rodgers, a senior juvenile counselor, said Smith counseling was the decisive factor in whether to hold or release a juvenile. "If a first offender steals $10 to $50 in merchandise, he shouldn't be cut loose right away. But if he's basically a decent kid, Ray Smith's strong counseling follow-up is going to help. I'll let the kid go. My conscience is eased knowing Ray's on the job."

Smith, 49, small and wiry, is the father of six. His wife, Beatrice, is also involved in community work. He notes that his children "have never given me any trouble."

But he also thinks of the hundreds of youngsters he has helped as "children of mine." An average of six calls a week will send Smith the 30 miles to Boys Village in Cheltenham, Md., to pick up youngsters whose parents do not have transportation. Often the juveniles must sleep overnight in Smith's office until he locates their parents.

"We perform a needed service," said Smith. "These kids need help; this program should not come to an end."

The project now receives emergency month-to-month funding from the United Black Fund, but it is the free labor and goodwill of the community that provides Smith with the backup he needs. The efficiency apartment-turned-office at 428 Brandywine St. SE, was donated rent-free by Dr. Dwight Terrel, who owns the building.

Tia Hall, a former teen-age runaway, is one of his three part-time volunteer office counselors.

"I've done it all," she said, "and what's more I've learned everything the hard way." Now 22, and the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, Hall says, "The kids know we care about them, know we'll do anything possible for them -- and in many cases, they're experiencing this feeling for the first time in their lives."

When youngsters' home environments have an especially bad influence, Smith sends their cases to Child Protective Services for foster home placement.

One such case involved twins picked up for shoplifting. Their parents were arrested in the District on the same charge at about the same time.

Another involved a 13-year-old who only went to a school when he was hungry -- to get a free breakfast or lunch. After eating, he left. Smith feels that when there is no motivation at home, the youngsters "must be saved by any means necessary."

Juvenile services administrator Dedes has sent Smith a letter of support to help him in his effort to rally the financial support necessary to keep the project going. Smith says his hopes are "evaporating with each passing day."

Jerry Woodhouse, supervisor of CETA grants management, said "there is no likelihood of an extension."

Curtis Taylor, the Department of Recreation's division chief in charge of community-based programs, had the option of extending Smith's program but decided not to.

"It was a value judgement on my part," he said, "I have other programs that I give a higher priority to."

Dedes criticized the District's city agencies for not getting involved. "The city has been slack in this area. Ray Smith is doing us a tremendous favor," he said, "but he's doing the families and kids a helluva bigger favor."