In the frenzied scramble to reduce the D.C. Jail population, several defendants sentenced to work release -- a term in which they are to keep their regular jobs by day and return to custody at night -- have ended up at a federal prison in Petersburg, Va., about 140 miles south of the District.

Court officials estimate that as many as 15 prisoners slated for work release have been shipped to Petersburg under a sweeping agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that says that all newly sentenced prisoners will go directly to federal prisons to ease crowding at the D.C. Jail.

"Work release is an important sentencing option that is being, in effect, repealed without the judges' consent because of this agreement," said Bill Erhardt, director of Legal Assistance for the D.C. Superior Court.

Superior Court Judge Fred B. Ugast said that he and his colleagues are "deeply concerned" because the intent of work release is that "the individual keep his job," and shipment to Petersburg "is defeating the purpose."

According to Erhardt, judges often use work release when they consider the offense too serious for probation, but "at the same time, the judge does not want to impose a sentence that means the defendant would lose his job and perhaps place his family on welfare."

Under D.C. statutes, work release may be ordered only in misdemeanor cases, which are the less serious crimes.

In one case, James H. Neal, a defendant who, according to court documents, was sentenced to 30 days' work release after pleading guilty to shoplifting Sept. 10, ended up at Petersburg the next day.

According to Neal's attorney, Suzanne Sager, he fears that the move may already have cost him his construction job.

Last Thursday, Sager filed documents in court charging that the practice of sending all sentenced defendants, including those on work release, to federal prisons is "not only unconstitutional, but also directly contravenes the judgment and commitment orders" of D.C. Superior Court judges.

Sager asked the court to start legal proceedings to hold the U.S. attorney general in contempt of court "for ignoring" a court-ordered work release sentence.

Timothy Reardon, the principal assistant U.S. attorney for the District, said Thursday that the allegations will be answered in formal papers filed in court.

But Reardon added that the federal government's "intention is not to violate any law." He said that federal officials are "sensitive to the logistical problems" raised by the agreement to take all newly sentenced D.C. prisoners and want to resolve them.

Reardon said that the federal government's main intent "is to ease the crisis in public safety" caused by the jail crowding, an intent that he said is demonstrated by the large number of prisoners taken to federal facilities since the agreement between the District and Justice Department officials Aug. 21.

According to the U.S. attorney's office, 329 defendants sentenced in Superior Court since Aug. 24 have been taken to federal facilities.

The agreement to take these prisoners grew out of a protracted battle in U.S. District Court, started by attorneys for inmates, to reduce crowding at the D.C. Jail.

The District is under orders from a federal judge to reduce the jail population to 1,694 by Nov. 22. On Aug. 21, the population stood at 2,493, and Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen, in a letter to Mayor Marion Barry, said federal authorities would begin taking all newly sentenced criminals from D.C. Superior Court.

Hal Williams, a special assistant to the city administrator, said he is aware of the "logistical problems" created by that agreement.

"As to what we do about it, it is sort of the rock and the hard place," Williams said.

He explained that the main objective now is to comply with the judge's order, and that "to fail to have those people transferred to federal facilities is going to put us in a situation of possibly not being to comply with the bench marks."

Kathy Morse, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said that officials are aware of three work release prisoners at Petersburg.

"But it could be that others went out to other prisons," she said.

Under the agreement, Bureau of Prisons officials at Superior Court see new prisoners as they come from sentencing and determine what federal facility would be right for them by looking at the nature of their offenses, their previous records and their ages, according to Erhardt.

Once that is determined, Erhardt said, all the prisoners are transported to the prison at Petersburg for a holding period.

Then the prisoners are transfered to federal prisons that have included prisons in Seagoville and Fort Worth, Tex., Danbury, Conn., and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, according to Erhardt.

Officials from the District and the federal government told a reporter that they would be willing to work out an accommodation to solve the problem, but, according to Erhardt, "nothing has changed."