Arlington Sheriff James A. Gondles plans to put some county jail inmates to work next month outside the jail.

The inmates, who must be serving sentences of less than 12 months and meet other requirements, may volunteer to work on county projects such as scrubbing graffiti from bicycle path barriers, picking up trash and planting shrubs in parks.

When the program begins, Arlington will be the third Washington area jurisdiction in the last four years to turn to an old idea -- inmate "road gangs" -- to address contemporary problems of crowded jails and escalating costs.

Gondles said the program, similar to existing projects in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, will help ease daytime jail crowding, offer inmates a chance for accomplishment and complete some work the county has neither money nor people to do.

Several County Board members contacted yesterday said they supported the program, the first of its kind in Northern Virginia or the District.

The Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation uses inmate crews to work on state highways in the area.

"My immediate reaction is a positive one," said board member John Milliken.

Milliken said that "you would have to be careful about security -- it would require some careful limiting of the kinds of projects," but he favored the "idea of making productive use of the time in jail."

Prince George's County jail public information officer Sharon Williams said that in the county's four-year-old work detail program, inmates help the public works department on such projects as clearing land, collecting trash and digging ditches.

In Montgomery County, Corrections Director Gary Blake said a program begun two months ago allows inmates who are 60 to 90 days away from release to perform work for the county. For the 10 to 15 prisoners now participating, he said, the work "alleviates some of the idleness of inmates in county jails."

While the District of Columbia, Fairfax County and Alexandria all have work-release programs or "weekender" programs that allow work as an alternative to incarceration, none has group work programs for people who are in custody.

Gondles said that taking even a small group of five or six inmates from the jail during the day would help loosen tension in the crowded facility as well as provide valuable service to the community. "There's something to be said for someone going to jail and society getting a payback," he said. I think we need to make an effort to help, in a small way, law-abiding citizens by having these guys do something to clean up our community."

Gondles said the success of the county's two-year-old Community Work Program, in which screened misdemeanor offenders may be ordered to work as an alternative to jail, prompted him to "take a risk and see if we could get people who were sentenced to jail to do work for the county." The Community Work Program, he said, has saved Arlington about $200,000 so far through reduced incarceration costs and work the county would otherwise have to pay for.

A Circuit Court order issued last month permits inmates who are not repeat felony offenders or under detainer from another jurisdiction and who pass other criteria set by the sheriff's office to perform work on county and state property. They will earn one day of "extraordinary good time" credit for each five days of work, eliminating one day from their sentences.

Gondles stressed that the inmates will be supervised by an armed deputy sheriff and that persons convicted of violent crimes will not be allowed to work.