Prince George's County's house arrest programis introduced by officials in April as a possible solution to crowding in the county jail for nonviolent, minor offenses such as shoplifting and nonpayment of child support -- is off to a rough start.

The first of five people assigned to house arrest was a convicted felon who was found to be away from home without authorization, a violation of the program. The four others were placed in the new program while they awaited trial and included a man charged with assault and two men who were denied bond because of previous arrests on theft or drug charges.

That record has raised concerns among prosecutors and the judge who helped establish the program.

Circuit Judge Howard S. Chasanow, who worked with corrections department officials to develop the plan for house arrest and is a strong supporter of the program, said he was concerned about the way in which the program has been implemented so far, especially involving the prisoners who had not yet been convicted.

"The primary intent is as a tool of corrections in lieu of incarceration," he said, "not as a form of pretrial release."

Assistant State's Attorney Robert H. Harvey Jr., who won the felony conviction against Kevin Anthony Clayborne -- the first house arrest participant, who two weeks ago was returned to jail after allegedly breaking the rules -- said that Clayborne was not the right person to inaugurate the program.

"I told the judge in court that if he Clayborne was the first one in the program, I could almost guarantee he'd be the first one to flunk out," Harvey said. "I thought he had an attitude problem."

Corrections Director Samuel Saxton, however, said he did not see any reason to revamp the system. "The criteria are solid," he said, adding that "misdemeanor or low-grade felony thefts are not inappropriate for the program."

Prince George's County, which has a court-ordered cap on the number of prisoners in the detention center in Upper Marlboro, is the first area jurisdiction seeking to alleviate crowding problems with house arrests. The relatively new concept, law enforcement officials say, is also being used by more than a dozen jurisdictions across the country, including Norfolk. Fairfax County has a similar program that is awaiting its first participant.

Clayborne, of Glenarden, pleaded guilty in April to stealing more than $300 worth of tennis shoes, athletic equipment and jewelry from two Hyattsville teen-agers last August. Police said that four men were involved in the robbery and that at least one of the assailants had a gun. But investigators could not determine who had the gun, and weapons charges against Clayborne and another defendant were dropped.

Circuit Judge Audrey E. Melbourne sentenced Clayborne, now 19, to five years in prison, but suspended all but 90 days, which she ordered him to serve in the new house arrest program.

Clayborne is scheduled to appear Monday before Melbourne for a hearing to determine if he should be expelled from the house arrest program and jailed for up to five years.

Melbourne said in an interview last week that she placed Clayborne in the program because corrections department officials had recommended it and because "his crime was not a violent crime. More importantly, he was very young and was living at home with his mother."

"It was obvious from his background that he was not used to following any rules," Melbourne said, citing reports of frequent fights and truancy from school. "I thought the program would be a mechanism of teaching him responsibility. He needed some real supervision -- to have somebody always on him."

She said the program was "almost like a guardian angel on his shoulder, watching his every move."

Placing restrictions on a person's liberty while not confining him to jail is precisely the idea behind the house arrest program, Saxton said.

In Prince George's, participants must wear an unremovable bracelet that they insert into equipment hooked to their telephones whenever they are called by the corrections department computer to verify that they are home, said Al Hall, director of the house arrest program. Also, corrections officials make random visits to the houses, he said.

A fringe benefit of the program, Hall said, is that it saves the county money. It costs about $44 a day to keep a prisoner in the County Detention Center, he said. When the program reaches its goal of 25 participants, they will be charged a fee, he said. Hall said he expected the fee to be about $7 a day -- what it costs the county for each person.

"If we can control a criminal offender and have him pay for it, society is better off and the individual is better served," Hall said.

Prosecutor Harvey, who said he did not believe that convicted felons should be placed in the program, said Clayborne "has made it awfully difficult for a judge to put faith in the program. He is the first one, he is in it for two months, and he fouls up."

Melbourne, however, said the incident has not shaken her confidence in the house arrest concept. "I still think it is an excellent program," she said. "I'm just sorry my kid didn't learn his lesson quick enough."