Fairfax County came close to losing a nurse, a teacher, a bank teller, several accountants and hundreds of other professional people last year when they were arrested for shoplifting.

If convicted, many would have forfeited their livelihoods.

For the second year, however, the county -- in conjunction with the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (Leaa) -- has sponsored a program aimed at helping the "first-time impulse shoplifter" -- the person who has not stolen before and, once apprehended, almost certainly won't again.

"Quite simply, this program saved my life," says one insurance salesman who believes a shoplifting conviction would have ruined his marriage as well as his business.

In lieu of a conviction -- which would have meant a criminal record, a stiff fine and perhaps a jail sentence -- this insurance agent and more than 300 other persons were allowed to perform 50 hours of community volunteer work and walk away with a clean slate.

"We are looking for those who appear to steal on an impulse," says Francis O'Neal, director of Fairfax's Offender Aid and Restoration Program. "Statistically, the person who shoplifts once and is caught never does it again -- the recidivism rate is extremely low.

"But for many of these people, a conviction and criminal record would ruin their careers . . . it would wreck their family life. The people feel they can never hold up their heads again."

The offender aid program is designed to allow the first-time shoplifter to quietly repay society for his or her crime -- without fanfare or further humiliation.

While psychologists and law enforcement agents are undecided on the motive behind shoplifting, they agree on several points:

The average shoplifter has enough money at the time of the crime to purchase the item he steals. Most shoplifters insist they have never stolen before and seem shocked when they are treated as thieves.

"I don't know what came over me, I'd never taken anything before in my life," says a participant in the offender aid program who lifted a sweater from a local department store. "Thank goodness I didn't lose my job."

The first step in the program is identifying those on the court dockets who do not appear to be career criminals. Among the things O'Neal looks for are:

An accused shoplifter with no previous criminal record.

A shoplifter caught with just one item (anyone who apparently went into a store with a list can't qualify as an impulse shoplifter).

After qualified candidates have been identified by the offender aid office, the commonwealth attorney is asked to review the facts of the case before permitting the accused shoplifter the option of working through the program.

Finally, on the day the accused is due in court, he or she is approached by a representative of the offender aid office and given the opportunity to join the program before facing the prospect of being convicted.

O'Neal says most of them are delighted.

"We've spared them a conviction," he says from his office in the basement of the Law Building, which faces the county courthouse. "To many, who have lived in fear of losing their jobs for several months since they were arrested, the offer to do community service is really welcome . . . they've usually totured themselves with the fear of being convicted."

So far this year, 314 people have gone through the offender aid program. They have donated 15,700 hours of service to the community (which, at the minimum wage, equals $48,670 worth of service -- $3,600 more than the government spends on the program).

"There are very few other programs which can boast such cost-effectiveness," says O'Neal with obvious pride.

But that is still a drop in the bucket compared with the $496,176,700 area stores lost to shoplifting last year.

"It's a horrendous problem in this area," says Leonard Kolodny of the Washington Area Board of Trade, which is gearing up for a new rash of shoplifting as the holiday season approaches. "And about 72 percent of the people who steal are in the middle or upper-income brackets."

Kolodny agrees that the typical shoplifter will stop stealing once apprehended, and he is full of praise for the Fairfax program.

O'Neal tries to tailor the volunteer work to the person's talents and interests. The result, he says, is that people begin to enjoy the work they are assigned and often wish to stay on. O'Neal says only the director of the agency -- who is pledged to secrecy -- is aware that the new worker was accused of shoplifting.

Among the agencies most often selected are the County Parks and Recreation Department and library system, American Red Cross, American Cancer Society and Planned Parenthood -- all organizations that welcome volunteer labor.

"I'm really impressed with the program," says Marilyn Colby Rivkin, director of the county's Planned Parent hood center. It's just been fabulous for us . . . in fact, at least two volunteers decided to stay on after their 50 hours was over. One even took some counseling courses to help."