Area residents are understandably nervous over the planned early release of 350 D.C. inmates as a means of reducing prison overcrowding. But contrary to the assertion by Rep. Stanford E. Parris (R-Va.) that this action by the District government poses a serious threat to public safety, it is more likely that public safety will be enhanced.

The reasons are twofold.

First, overcrowding makes rehabilitation impossible and leads to recidivism. If releasing 350 prisoners 30 to 90 days early will give authorities more room for dealing with the remaining 1,700 or so, the chances are better that those inmates will receive the guidance they need before they are released.

Second, the action by Mayor Marion Barry to invoke emergency release powers was a victory for the inmates, who had lobbied U.S. District Judge June L. Green to pressure the mayor into doing something. This affirmation that the inmates, despite their crimes, are still human beings goes a long way toward encouraging them to change their behavior.

Reaction to the early-release plan by many law-abiding residents has been negative. There is a feeling that the criminal element has somehow conspired to overwhelm the criminal justice system for a legal bust-out.

But there has been no conspiracy among young residents to send themselves to prison.

City officials say drug arrests associated with the police department's Operation Clean Sweep contributed to the problem.

Indeed, nearly 30 percent of the men at Lorton are there because they use drugs.

But high arrest rates aren't the problem.

The problem is the dramatic failure of the institutions of this city -- especially the family -- to instill the proper values in its young residents.

With more than 6,500 people behind bars, the tiny District of Columbia has the highest incarceration rate in the United States.

There are 13,000 people on probation, 2,500 on parole and 9,000 more awaiting trial.

Under the emergency release process, Barry is permitted to reduce by 90 days the minimum sentences of some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes -- bad-check writers, shoplifters, auto thieves, alimony evaders and such -- making them eligible for parole.

Parole eligibility, however, does not guarantee parole. A person who goes before the D.C. Parole Board under the early-release plan must demonstrate that he has acted in a manner worthy of release, that he has been involved in prison school work or group activities and that he is not a troublemaker.

As it stands now, about 65 percent of the people who go before the parole board are freed. That percentage is expected to remain the same under the new plan.

Needless to say, there is much excitement over this new opportunity at Lorton. One immediate benefit of the announcement of the plan is that virtually all inmates are on their best behavior.

Call it an act, if you will, but ultimately that's all society is asking of these men, to act right.

For the first time in a long time, inmates are inquiring about school and other special programs offered at the prison.

One inmate, contacted by telephone, says a new appreciation of freedom now pervades the atmosphere, that inmates who had not been on their best behavior are now trying to turn over new leaves.

One prison official says some inmates seem to be looking at the world in a new way, that this unexpected opportunity for freedom, or at least more space, has generated interest in what it takes to get a parole.

"What the mayor and director continually try to drive home to inmates is that the prison system is an agent for changing habits and learning new skills so they can take advantage of freedom," said Edward Sargent, public information officer for the Department of Corrections.

"It takes discipline to be free and not encroach on someone else's freedom. I sense there is more receptiveness to this now," he said.

If true, that would signal a crucial change in attitude at Lorton, and one that should make the public feel safer.