Fairfax County Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins wants to try something with persons convicted of minor offenses that parents have been doing for years: grounding them.

Huggins has volunteered the county jail for one of two pilot programs in Virginia that will test the "in-house arrest" concept as a possible solution to crowding problems in the state's prisons. Under such programs, offenders are not jailed. Instead, they are wired with electronic surveillance equipment to ensure that they are where officials want them to be.

"It's house arrest, that's exactly what it is," said Huggins. "A grown-up version of grounding someone."

The program would affect such a wide swath of the criminal justice system, he said, that there are numerous details to be worked out and people to be contacted before it can be implemented.

Although the program is relatively new, with Palm Beach County, Fla., recognized by law enforcement officials as the pioneer, it is getting rave reviews.

The few systems in effect primarily work like this: A small, waterproof, battery-operated transmitter is strapped to the offender's leg, wrist or neck. A monitor is attached to the offender's telephone.

If the offender tampers with the device or strays a certain distance from the monitor -- usually a radius of 100 to 150 feet -- a signal is sent to a computer in the sheriff's office. The computer prints out a notice that a violation has occurred, and a patrol car is dispatched to pick up the offender, who could then be charged with escape and jailed.

The Virginia Department of Corrections hopes to start the programs in Fairfax and Norfolk in about six months, according to C.R. Mastracco, deputy director of Adult Community Corrections in Richmond. Mastracco met recently with Huggins in Fairfax to discuss the program.

"This is strictly an experiment," said Huggins. "I've got some concerns about its viability. But by the same token, I think that there is some room for optimism that it may be able to be used for certain types of people, in certain types of situations."

In Palm Beach County, officials say the system is such a success that law enforcement officials elsewhere are clamoring to find out how it works.

"We pioneered this thing," said Lt. Gene Garcia of the Palm Beach County sheriff's office, which has been getting calls from Oregon, Kentucky, Canada, England and Israel. "The ultimate objective of reducing overcrowding in the jail is achievable if the in-house arrest program is used properly," he said.

Corrections officials who have used similar programs are also enthusiastic: "It's great," said Terry Gassaway, director of corrections in Clackamas County, Ore. "It's the wave of the future. It will alter the face of corrections."

The pioneer program got started in Florida when Glen Rothbart, director of Pride Inc., a nonprofit probation program for first offenders, approached a judge there with the idea.

Rothbart said the concept was originally tried in New Mexico a few years ago, but the electronics were not available and it flopped.

Judge Edward Garrison at Palm Beach County Court was intrigued, Rothbart said, and he gave the green light.

Garrison and Rothbart met with Sheriff Richard P. Wille in Palm Beach County, and the programs were started at the sheriff's office and Pride Inc. in December. Since then, Rothbart said, about 150 persons have participated on a strictly volunteer basis.

Garcia, who runs the program for the sheriff's office, said the start-up cost for the system was $53,000, which included computer equipment and 45 transmitters and monitors. But he said the program eventually will pay for itself, and he hopes to get more units soon.

Garcia said that in addition to reducing the jail population, the program is saving the county money. Instead of the $42.50 per day it costs to feed and house an inmate at the jail, he said, the in-house arrest program costs $9 a day, and the participants pay for the privilege of using it.

Also, he said, the computer can be programmed so the participant can leave the house for a specified time and remain employed, reducing the family's financial burden.

Garcia said the program produces positive changes in the life style of the offender, who is kept in the mainstream of society, albeit on a limited basis. He has had only one instance in which an offender -- someone convicted of a driving offense -- bolted.

"I think it's working fantastically," said Garrison, who gives offenders the option of participating in the program either as a condition of probation or as part of their sentence. "If I had 200 [of the units] I'd be using them."

Garrison is not the only one who is pleased. "I talked to the wives," said Garcia. "They are so happy to have their husbands home. Boy, do they love that!"

Proponents say the program has untapped potential and could be used, for example, as a way to keep people convicted of multiple driving offenses off the road at night.

Garcia and others who have tried it stress that the key to the program's success is choosing the right people. Garcia admits only work-release inmates, and only those who have demonstrated that they would be good candidates. Each participant must have a sponsor, he added.

Huggins plans to proceed slowly and cautiously with the experiment in Fairfax and probably will hook up only a few inmates convicted of minor offenses. "Obviously this is not something that would be used for mass murderers."

Huggins said that jail is not the answer for all offenders and that he hopes in-house arrest will give judges an alternative form of punishment, "a middle ground that really doesn't exist right now."

Huggins said he is awaiting word from the Virginia attorney general's office to find out whether state law gives corrections officials the authority to institute the program. And, he added, "if the bench is not willing to participate, then it probably would not fly."

Chief Judge Robert M. Hurst of General District Court in Fairfax said the court likely will have no objection to the experiment. "I would look at anything, truly."

In Norfolk, Sheriff David K. Mapp said he has no problem with trying in-house arrest there if the judges and commonwealth's attorney's office do not object.

Huggins, who said he plans to talk to Garcia about the Palm Beach County program, said Virginia corrections officials are considering a new bracelet device, which is lighter and less bulky than earlier models.

Gassaway has been using bracelet devices for about seven months in Oregon. He said the homebound inmate is called randomly and, to avoid being found in violation, must give name and identification number and then insert the bracelet into the monitor by the phone..

He said he has had a few people who were drunk and were taken off the system, but no one has managed to cut one off.

In Salt Lake City, where officials are using the necklace devices, a few offenders have removed the devices.

Overall, though, Garcia and the others have reported no major problems with the system other than a few technical glitches, such as dead batteries. "You've got to expect that," said Gassaway. "This is the Model T."