The U.S. Justice Department, in a move apparently designed to free Attorney General Edwin Meese III from a possible contempt of court citation, said yesterday it would no longer send District prisoners sentenced to work-release programs to distant federal facilities.

But in announcing the action, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova blamed District officials for the problems with implementing the work-release sentences.

"The District of Columbia is responsible for this predicament, not the attorney general . . . ," said diGenova.

"The problems with work-release in general and other problems associated with the prison and jail overcrowding situation have been caused by the city's inaction over the last five years to construct a new prison. A Herculean effort has been made by this office," he said.

The Justice Department decision not to transfer to out-of-town facilities prisoners sentenced to work-release came after D.C. Superior Court Judge Steffen Graae ordered Meese to appear at a hearing scheduled for Friday to explain why he should not be held in court for ignoring the court-ordered work-release sentences.

As part of a joint city-federal effort to meet court-imposed population limits at the D.C. Jail, all prisoners sentenced since the end of August were sent directly to federal facilities.

Among those transferred were about 15 prisoners who were sentenced to work-release -- a judgment that permits prisoners to work their regular jobs during the day and return to custody at night.

DiGenova would not comment on how the agreement would affect the order for Meese to appear in court, but other persons involved in the case predicted the move would blunt the attempt to hold Meese in contempt.

Because of the involvement of a federal official, the case was transferred yesterday from Graae to a U.S. District Court judge. Sources said the government is expected to move to vacate the order for Meese to appear.

The inmate whose transfer to the federal prison in Petersburg, Va., prompted Graae's order had his sentence reduced to time served and was ordered released last Friday.

In addition to keeping all work-release prisoners in the District or at D.C.'s Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County, diGenova said, the Department of Corrections will also keep in the area all newly sentenced prisoners who have additional cases pending.

In the past five weeks, about a quarter of those prisoners sent to the federal facility at Petersburg -- about 140 miles south of the District -- have had other pending cases, creating many transportation problems for court officials.

D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I said after the agreement was announced that the court "welcomed" it.

"I'm delighted to hear that," said Judge Moultrie. "It certainly takes a strain off us and safeguards our calendars. We have been hoping it would happen for some time."

The chief of the District's legal staff said yesterday that the U.S. attorney's office had made an exhaustive effort to help relieve overcrowding at the D.C. Jail, but said he did not want to discuss diGenova's charges and the "issue of past fault."

"The Justice Department has offered us a great deal of cooperation," said John Suda, acting D.C. corporation counsel, "but I just don't think past disputes ought to get in the way here. "

Citing "massive overcrowding," U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant ordered the city on July 15 not to send any new prisoners to the jail, starting Aug. 22, unless the inmate population was cut to 1,693.

The city later won a reprieve from Bryant by promising to reduce the jail population by one-third within 90 days.

Suggested measures for accomplishing the reduction included such measures as sending all newly sentenced prisoners to federal facilities.

In a Friday hearing before Judge Graae, two assistant U.S. attorneys argued that federal officials were not required to honor work-release sentences because the newly sentenced prisoners were now under the jurisdiction of federal and not local law.

Graae called that argument "preposterous" and ordered Meese to appear.