The theme is ideally suited to this fall's campaign brochures: Your Lawmaker Got Tough on Crime. Yet, as the people who run Virginia's prisons know, getting tough on crime is easy. The hard part is finding room for the criminals.

Solving the prison problem, however, is not so popular this year. Prison construction is being delayed because of the state's budget crunch. Alternative sentencing solutions have been shelved, pending further study. But time, like money, is running out and there are some who fear that Virginia is heading for a major crisis in its prisons.

By last count, the Robb-Baliles proposals--longer mandatory sentences for gun-wielding felons and denial of parole after a second felony offense--would add another 1,800 inmates to the prison system by the early 1990s. That's on top of a 40 percent increase in the prison population already projected by the Corrections Department. It now expects to house almost 15,000 prisoners by 1990.

The warning signals are there. Local jails are now housing 1,200 prisoners who should be in state prisons. Overcrowding in the jails has led to a rash of lawsuits as sheriffs try to force the state to accept responsibility for its prisoners.

Two new, 500-bed prisons scheduled to open this year promise only temporary relief. In fact, the state now plans to double up prisoners in half of the new cells, relying on the Supreme Court's recent ruling that allows double occupancy in limited cases.

All of this adds up, at the very least, to a need for new prisons. Yet this year, because of the state's fiscal problems, both Robb and Gov. John N. Dalton before him felt compelled to delay plans for one of two new medium-security prisons. "Economic reality is what it is," said Robb spokesman George Stoddart.

It didn't take long for Robb's new public safety secretary, Franklin White, newly arrived from Silver Spring, to understand the magnitude of the prison problem. Four weeks into the job, White went before a legislative committee with Robb's blessing, proposing a way to ease the overcrowding.

The White solution was to let nonviolent offenders out of prison earlier, freeing space for the violent criminals everyone seems to want to keep locked up. It was, White admits, a "hurried effort," and it eventually died on the floor of the House of Delegates.

Conservatives jumped on the proposal, arguing that nonviolent offenders now in state prisons are often no less dangerous to society than murderers and rapists. Even liberals were disturbed, noting that the Virginia Code classifies unlikely crimes, such as consentual sodomy, as "violent" offenses.

Still, some legislators were pleased to see that someone finally was considering the consequences of "getting tough on crime." "At least somebody woke up," said Del. Theodore Morrison (D-Newport News). "Finally somebody is beginning to think of where we're going."

Morrison and others fear that packing the prisons eventually will lead to a lawsuit citing the crowded conditions as a violation of inmates' constitutional rights. "That's an attack the state has never had to deal with," said Chan Kendrick, Virginia director of the American Civil Liberties Union, "but I am convinced that if one were filed and done with the proper resources, the prison system could not withstand a constitutional challenge of that magnitude."

Law-and-order advocates are not so convinced by the Department of Corrections' projections, which they say tend to exaggerate the impact of longer minimum sentences. Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan, for instance, argues that a criminal sentenced to a mandatory three years for commission of a felony with a gun would be eligible for parole in seven months and five days. "In that sense, it isn't a very stiff law at all," he said.

No one, not even the most hard-line conservatives, dispute that Virginia prisons need help. "There's no question that if Virginia is to continue ranking 35th in the country in crime, we are going to have to bite the bullet," said Horan. "Maybe some of the bills are going to force them to do it."

But it won't be this year. When the White proposal went down to defeat, a Robb spokesman said it was an idea that could wait until next year. "We don't consider it a significant defeat," said Stoddart. "It wasn't something we campaigned on."