A D.C. Superior Court judge ordered U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III yesterday to appear at a hearing next week to determine whether he should be held in contempt of court for ignoring court orders sentencing some prisoners to District-run work-release programs and instead transferring them to federal prisons miles away to meet court-ordered population limits at the D.C. Jail.

"If this court cannot effect its own sentence . . . ," Judge Steffen Graae said, "it seems to me the entire seat of authority of this court is in jeopardy."

Graae's order that Meese must appear Oct. 4 came after two assistant U.S. attorneys argued that the judge did not have the authority to require that work-release sentences be honored, saying they were superseded by an August agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that all newly sentenced District prisoners be sent to federal prisons.

Graae characterized the government's arguments as "preposterous."

Meese was in California yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, another tactic used by the District to reduce overcrowding at the D.C. Jail -- transferring prisoners to Lorton Reformatory -- was attacked yesterday by a lawyer for inmates at Lorton's Central facility who told a federal judge that the transfers caused population limits there to be exceeded.

The attorney, Peter J. Nickles, told U.S. District Judge June L. Green that he would ask on Monday for the District government to be held in contempt of court if it does not come up with a plan to reduce Central's dormitory population to the court-imposed level of 1,125.

Calling current Central overcrowding "a situation which is just calling for disaster," Nickles suggested that it may have contributed to a riot at the facility Monday in which 17 inmates and two corrections officers were wounded.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Metcalfe King told the court that 1,220 inmates were at the Central facility yesterday, down from 1,277 inmates on Aug. 31, and that overcrowding at Lorton was being reduced. Both figures include dormitory population and inmates in control cells and the infirmary.

Terming the shuttling of prisoners between the jail and Lorton a "Ping-Pong with the people back and forth," Green told King that "something has to be done" to alleviate overcrowding at both institutions. Green earlier this week rejected a request by the District to increase Central's population cap by 10 percent.

"The powers of the District of Columbia are going to have to face the situation and do something," Green said.

King hinted that the District may ask Green for permission to add 400 beds at Lorton until a new facility can be built.

Although King said the increase is still under consideration, the proposal immediately drew the wrath of Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity, who said county attorneys would go to court Monday in an effort to force the District to meet the 1,125 cap at Central.

Lorton is located in southern Fairfax, but the county has no jurisdiction over the facility.

"If they try to pull something like that we're talking total warfare," Herrity said.

"There is no way that we would ever allow 400 new prisoners to be put in the facility. They can't handle what they have . . . . The District of Columbia has to learn to take responsiblity on itself to handle its prisoners and stop dumping them in Fairfax County."

The District is under separate orders from Green and U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant to limit inmate populations at Lorton and the D.C. Jail.

On July 15, citing "massive overcrowding," Bryant ordered the city to send no new prisoners to the jail starting Aug. 22 unless the inmate population was cut to 1,693.

The city later won a reprieve by promising to reduce the jail population by nearly one-third within the next 90 days through such measures as sending prisoners to halfway houses and sending all newly sentenced prisoners to federal facilities.

Since the end of August, at least 15 defendants sentenced to work release programs -- a judgment that allows the defendant to work during the day and return to custody at night -- have been transferred to federal prison facilities, the closest at Petersburg, Va., 140 miles south of the District.

Work-release, which may only be ordered in less serious crimes, is considered the most important alternative to incarceration for a judge who does not want a defendant to lose his job.

A law enforcement official said after Graae's order, "It's very ironic that at the same time that the District and federal government have all but voided the work-release program," a group appointed by the mayor to study the construction of a new jail "has rejected building a new jail and said the District should be looking at more alternative sentences" such as work-release.

In the Superior Court case yesterday, government prosecutors argued that Judge Graae no longer had jurisdiction over the sentence of James H. Neal because he was sent to the federal prison at Petersburg and is now subject to federal, not District, law. Judge Graae had sentenced Neal to 30 days' work-release -- which would have allowed him to work at his construction job during the day and spend nights at a District halfway house -- after he pleaded guilty to shoplifting Sept. 10.

Arguing that his sentence was not properly carried out, Neal's attorney, Suzanne D. Sager, asked for a reduction in the sentence and that a representenative of the Justice Department appear at a show-cause hearing to explain why Meese should not be held in contempt of court for ignoring the court-ordered work-release.

After reviewing the case yesterday, Judge Graae turned to the two assistant U.S. attorneys, Royce C. Lamberth and John M. Facciola, and rejected their arguments that he no longer had jurisdiction over implementation of Neal's sentence.

Except for one argument, Judge Graae said, "the rest of the pleading strikes me as preposterous." He then ordered Neal's release and reduced his sentence to the time he had served.

After the hearing, some law officials questioned a key affidavit by Harry Walsh, chief of the Corrections Department's community programs, stating that on Wednesday all halfway houses exceeded their capacities and that new admissions would result in "severe overpopulated conditions".

According to yesterday's population counts, the total number of inmates at the halfway houses was greater than on Wednesday, indicating that some inmates had been moved into halfway houses in the last two days.

Department of Corrections officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.