Eight men who were allowed to pay their debts to society by performing community service instead of going to jail were graduated last week at commencement ceremonies that marked a new beginning in their lives.

Wearing black commencement robes, the eight ex-offenders received their certificates of completion at the 19th Street Baptist Church on 16th Street NW as friends, relatives and onlookers applauded their achievements. s

The eight ex-offenders were part of a group of 15 who successfully completed 200 hours of alternative service through the Inner Voices Inc. Restitution Program. In some cases, the offenders also repaid their victims for the cost of their crimes.

Inner Voices has been operating the District's only alternative-to-jail program for adult offenders for three years with $150,000 a year from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). This may be the last year for the program; its funding will run out Sept. 30 because of federal budget cuts. So far, the search for a new pot of gold has been unsuccessful.

Although the program's future is uncertain, Rhozier T. "Roach" Brown, founder of Inner Voices, and other staff members remain confident.

"I just believe we won't go under and that we will get the funds from somewhere," said Chris Singletary, director of the program. "I don't see how the federal and city government can afford to let this program go under. The prisons are already over-crowded and locking them (offenders) up is not really helping them and it's not charging their lifestyle. It's making them worse."

Brown contends the program actually saves the city money -- money that can be used for other social programs.

"It is reported that it costs $14,000 to $24,000 to incarcerate one person a year. It costs $34,000 to build one cell to house one prisoner," Brown said. "Only about 30 percent needs incarceration in the first place, so the other 70 percent could be worked with in other ways."

Mayor Marion Barry, the graduation speaker, said he would try to find city money for the program.

"It takes more than guts to do what Inner Voices is doing. . . . I don't want to make false commitments, but I will promise between now and September, I will look into the budget and see if I can find some money to save this program."

The mayor also told the graduates not to give up, or give in. "Don't go back to what you were doing because that's not the way to succeed," he said.

The program is open to convicted adult offenders who do not have a history of sexual assault, crimes against minors or serious mental illness. They also must be drug- or alcohol-free for six months.

In addition, the offenders must have a suitable place to live and must not have any other charges pending against them.

Qualifying offenders are recommended for the program by their probation officers.Once in the program, a "restitution agreement" is reached among the superior court judge assigned to the case, the probation officer and Inner Voices, Singletary said.

Work sites for the ex-offenders include recreation departments, Children's Hospital, the Red Cross, athletic boys clubs, and Crispus Attucks Park of the Arts. Some attend the Logan Community School, which offers academic and vocational courses.

There are 78 offenders participating in the program, including the 15 who have completed the requirements.

Besides the community service, offenders are given daily counseling are participate in weekly group counseling sessions, where problems are discussed. Each participant must be employed full time or be in some training program.

The program seems to accomplish what many prisons have failed at: rehabilitation. The graduates said they are grateful to Inner Voices or helping them realize they can be productive members of their communities. More importantly, they said they have no intentions of going back to crime.

"It's (Inner Voices) one of the best things that could happen to a person," said Morris Jackson, 48. "If the program hadn't accepted me, I would have had to go back to jail."

Jackson, married and the father of three children, said he was arrested in 1969 on a narcotics charge and served six years in prison. He was paroled in 1974, he said, and was rearrested two years ago at Howard University for "taking copper and putting it in my truck."

"It was nice of the judge to say that it may be possible for me to get in this group because he thought there was some good in me," said Jackson, who works as a chauffeur for a minister.

The graduate said he hopes the program will continue. "It's been excellent to me and my family," Jackson said. "At the time I went into the program, my wife had an operation. (She is paralyzed on her right side, he said.) So everything is left on me, but I'm not making enough money to take care of it the way I want to. I'm doing everything in my power to support my family, but I don't want my kids to follow in my footsteps and make the mistakes I made."

He has talked to his two younger children about crime, Jackson said. Nadean is 12 and Morris Jr. is 13. "I told them not to make the same mistake," he said. "I want to see that my children grow up to be law-abiding citizens, send them through school so they can get a good job."

Dexter Ricardo Datcher, 28, a carpenter and mason, had been convicted of arson, burglary with a weapon, destroying property and receiving stolen goods. He said one of the things he liked about the program is that it gave him freedon. "It's an alternative to incarceration," he explained. "If incarcerated you will feel rejected by society."