The Virginia Senate approved a measure today that would allow the early release from prison of nonviolent repeat offenders. It has been endorsed by Gov. Charles S. Robb as a means to to alleviate prison crowding.

The bill, which passed by a 22-to-17 vote, was opposed by several senators and prosecutors who argued it would put career criminals back on the street.

"They want early release for chronic offenders," said Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan. "The Department of Corrections has really sold a bill of goods here."

The divisions on the measure reflect the difficulty Virginia and other states face in responding to the public clamor for longer sentences for drunk drivers, drug dealers and other criminals without raising taxes to build new prisons. In Virginia, where the inmate population is at an all-time high, state officials say it costs as much as $15,000 to maintain one inmate for a year.

"We must punish every law breaker, but we must also distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders," Robb said in his "State of the Commonwealth" speech earlier this month.

The legislation favored by Robb and approved by the Senate today now goes to the House, where several senators predicted it would face a hostile reception by many delegates wary of appearing "soft on crime" in an election year.

The bill would allow the state parole board to release criminals after they have served a quarter of their terms, or 12 years, whichever is less. That is already the standard for inmates in jail for the first time, but offenders currently must serve at least one-third of their terms during their second stay in jail, one-half of their terms during their third incarceration and three-quarters of their terms thereafter (with additional time off for good behavior).

Horan said release of such chronic offenders could lead to higher crime rates. "It is really fascinating that all across the country crime is going down, while all across the country incarceration is up," the Democratic prosecutor said.

Allyn Sielaff, Virginia deputy secretary of public safety, said Horan's fears would not be realized because the bill directs the parole board and director of corrections to consider a criminal's history before recommending release. Sielaff said he could not say how many inmates would be released.