District officials testified yesterday that an emergency program for the early release of nearly 900 inmates has had a "calming effect" on the city's overcrowded prisons and may indirectly help to reduce the high rate of repeat offenders.

In opposing a bill to rescind the program, City Administrator Thomas M. Downs told a House District of Columbia subcommittee that the program already has taken some pressure off D.C. Department of Corrections officials and allowed them to begin focusing on inmate rehabilitation efforts.

"The {prison} population will still be over the rated capacity at the conclusion of the emergency period," Downs said. "Yet, it has made a difference. The opportunity for early release has had a calming effect on the residents of our overcrowded facilities. The population flow in the system has shifted from a daily increase of 6.5 to a daily decrease of about 2.5 inmates."

Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), author of the bill, said the District, in its haste to comply with court-ordered limits on inmate population at Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail, has jeopardized public safety by granting early paroles to potentially dangerous inmates.

Parris argued that the emergency release program and a permanent release program that takes effect Nov. 17 "pose a direct and present threat to the safety of the residents of Washington and the surrounding jurisdictions."

"These D.C. acts represent the latest in a long series of knee-jerk attempts by the city to deal with federal court orders regarding prison population caps," he said.

Of the 599 inmates released under the program between July 3 and Aug. 28, 17 have been arrested on new charges, ranging from drug offenses to burglary and carrying a dangerous weapon, according to figures released by Downs.

On the average, inmates were released 21 days before they otherwise would have been freed. About 46 percent of the inmates had been incarcerated for drug-related offenses, nearly 9 percent had been convicted of larceny, 6 percent had committed robberies and nearly 6 percent had been convicted on weapons charges.

Under the emergency program, the mayor is allowed to reduce by 90 days the minimum sentences of some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, making them eligible for early parole.

The mayor also is permitted to reduce by 10 percent or up to a total of 90 days the sentences of inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who are serving their maximum sentences. Generally, these prisoners were denied parole at some point or chose to serve their full sentences.

A total of 860 inmates will be released under the program by Sept. 30.

Richard R. Atkinson, a member of the now-defunct D.C. Prison Facilities Study Commission, warned that many of the inmates who qualified for early release committed serious crimes but pleaded guilty to reduced charges. "We're talking about very violent people," he said.

Atkinson disputed Downs' assertion that the District cannot solve its long-term prison problem through the unlimited expansion of the prison system and by insisting that inmates serve long sentences.

"The alternative-to-prison crowd asserts that we cannot 'build' our way out of the dilemma of increasing prison poplulations," Atkinson said. "To the contrary, I believe that if we augment sentences considerably, to even life without parole for multiple repeat offenders, we will get the hard-core criminal, that we don't know how to rehabilitate anyway, off the street."