In the summer of 1980, a 17-year-old boy awaiting trial on a charge of writing a bad check for $17 was beaten and repeatedly raped by fellow inmates in a suburban jail outside Richmond.

The youth, who weighed 130 pounds and was diagnosed as borderline mentally retarded, filed suit against Chesterfield County and some of its deputy sheriffs, who, he charged, referred to him as "fresh meat" as they locked him in a cell with other inmates. Last spring the youth won $36,500 in damages from two jail guards, but the county's policy of housing juveniles in jail was not challenged or overturned.

The 17-year-old was one of about 4,000 youths older than 14 but under 18 whom officials acknowledge sending to adult jails in Virginia each year, a record that puts Virginia at or near the top among all states in locking juveniles in adult detention facilities. Despite this ranking there is a movement in the state legislature to make it easier to jail juveniles in Virginia.

The House of Delegates is considering a bill, already approved by the state Senate on a 22-to-17 vote, that would allow officials to jail youngsters who are not charged with any crime -- but who repeatedly run away from home, play hookey from school or otherwise get into trouble.

"These kids may be young, but they're street-wise," said Sen. John H. Chichester, a Republican from Stafford County who sponsored the bill allowing "status offenders" to be jailed. "The word 'grand larcency' is not something they have to look up in the dictionary. They're not guilty of breaking and entering, but they know what it is. We're not talking about babes-in-arms."

But Fairfax Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid, who says she would like for no juveniles to be jailed, said the status offenders -- in particular those known to social workers as "children in need of services," or CHINS -- should not be imprisoned.

"Some of these runaway girls are escaping from problems at home that nobody even used to talk about, like rape and incest," said McDiarmid, a Democrat who was first elected in 1959.

"Children get put into jail when people don't want to bother with them."

National studies have estimated that several hundred thousand juveniles each year spend time in jails built for adults, with the results being suicides, assaults and other serious, though less dramatic, problems.

A recent Justice Department study found that juveniles in adult jails commit suicide eight times more frequently than youths placed in juvenile detention center.

In Virginia youths are sent to adult jails because juvenile facilities are full, because sheriffs do not want to bother transporting them or because judges want to teach them a lesson, corrections experts and law-yers say.

Maryland and Pennsylvania forbid juveniles from being sent to jail unless their records and crimes are so serious that a judge rules they can be tried as adults. Virginia, however, allows children between 14 and 18 years of age to be housed in jail before their trials -- and, unlike most states, also allows judges to sentence these juveniles to as much as one year in jail after their trials.

Most children in Virginia jails are awaiting trial, and, according to state records, they spend an average of 21 days locked up. Many jails keep the juveniles in isolation rooms because they have nowhere else to put them, and few offer any school or recreational programs, according to James T. Roberts, a criminal justice analyst for the Virginia state government.

"The juvenile in a sense is ending up being more punished than the adult," said Robert E. Shepherd Jr., a University of Richmond law professor who directs the school's youth advocacy clinic.

Shepherd served in 1975-76 on the juvenile code reform commission, which considered a total ban on juveniles being jailed. "We were persuaded, I have to say now with some feelings of guilt, that at least in some circumstances jail should be left in the code as an option."

The new code gives considerable leeway to juvenile judges, who often send children to jail as "a shock treatment approach," Shepherd said. Judges may not currently sentence juveniles for status offenses -- offenses that would not be crimes for an adult -- but Shepherd said such children sometimes are locked up anyway.

"One girl was brought to a judge by her parents, who said they couldn't control her. The judge said, 'Hasn't she done anything bad in the last few months?' and the mother said: 'Well, she took my lipstick from my pocketbook and never returned it," Shepherd recalled. "They charged the girl with larceny.... You can frequently find some instance of delinquency to bootstrap a kid into a secure setting."

Chichester's bill would restore to judges the power to sentence status offenders to jail for as much as 30 days without finding the youngster committed a crime as a reason. The bill was opposed on the Senate floor by Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), but Chichester said Wilder's objections are misplaced.

"Doug Wilder can say, 'I can't understand why we'd want to throw a kid in jail for spitting on his mother," Chichester said. "But a juvenile judge is not going to send anyone to jail because he spat on his mother.... This is going to be the last resort, the very last thing to be tried."

Chichester also said most juveniles will be sent to "learning centers," formerly known as reform schools or training schools, and not to county jails. But several sheriffs, whose statewide association opposes sending children to jail, fear the bill would increase their juvenile population.

"If you're not specific about it, they'll probably end up in jail," said James H. Turner III, the sheriff in Henrico County, where a 17-year-old inmate attempted suicide last week. "We're the dumping ground."

On Feb. 1 there were 115 juveniles in Virginia jails, according to state records, including seven in Arlington, six in Fairfax and six in Prince William County

Most of the young inmates in Northern Virginia are charged with serious crimes, but even so sheriffs there said they would rather send them to juvenile detention centers.

"Our jail was built for adults, it was not built for juveniles," Arlington Sheriff James Gondles said. "The state certified us for holding juveniles, but we didn't want to hold them and I still don't think we should hold them."