Cornell Dickens, described in court records as a "threat to the community," was serving time at Lorton Reformatory for attempted robbery when he was freed about three months early under the city's plan to relieve prison crowding.

Only hours after he was released, the 26-year-old Northwest Washington man was arrested, charged with robbing a man on a downtown street corner, and sent back to prison. And law enforcement officials are still unsure about whether Dickens was released about 50 days early in the first place because of an administrative mistake.

Although Dickens would have been freed by November anyway, it is not just the issue of the relatively few days that were taken off his sentence that has disturbed the program's critics. They say that Dickens' case is one of many that raise serious questions about the District's ability to handle the controversial program, which could become a permanent fixture in the city's criminal justice system.

Since July 3, when Mayor Marion Barry declared a prison emergency and started a program of easing crowded prisons by releasing inmates up to 90 days early, about 870 prisoners have been freed.

Critics have charged that the District violated its commitment to release only prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes, that the program was hastily prepared and sloppily managed, and that any easing of overcrowding at the D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory is very temporary at best.

Corrections Director Hallem H. Williams Jr. defended the program, denying it was poorly managed and saying it was "not an end in itself."

"It is a means and a component in an overall strategy to effectively and prudently manage the inmate population during this time of crisis," Williams said.

About 140 of the inmates granted early release by the Corrections Department had been convicted of a wide range of serious crimes, including robbery, assault, illegal drug sales and weapons violations, according to Corrections Department records.

A preliminary review of 40 of the cases done by Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) indicates that many of those prisoners shouldn't have been released early at all because they were serving mandatory drug sentences, an offense that was specifically banned from the early release program.

Although the temporary emergency program ended Oct. 1, the lingering questions are significant because Congress is considering legislation now that would give the cityu permanent authority to grant early release to inmates whenever the prisons become overcrowded for 30 consecutive days -- a constant state of affairs in the District.

Community leaders and government officials concerned with the Lorton issue allege that:The D.C. Corrections Department workers who determined which inmates could be released early were ill-prepared, given no guidelines and were frequently confused about which inmates to free.

Four workers were assigned to examine 6,000 to 7,000 inmate records because the department lacked qualified records examiners, sources said.

As a result, mistakes were made and some prisoners who should not have been freed early were released.

"Nobody gave {the corrections workers} any specific guidelines," said one Corrections Department employe close to the early-release process.

"It was catch-as-catch-can. Low-grade workers, who had no degree or professional training in the law, were left to define the law and decide who to release from prison."

"They were letting them out so fast at the beginning," said a Corrections Department source. "They didn't have a sufficient number of qualified document examiners to do a thorough job of really looking at an individual's folder to determine if he should get an early release."

"The staff has done a fine job, and it has been a hard job," Williams said. "Instructions were given to the records office explaining what offenses were excludable from early release . . . . The notion of people being released to prey on the community is not borne out by the data I've seen." When Mayor Marion Barry declared the emergency in the summer, he assured the public that only "nonviolent criminals" would be released. Now, corrections officials say that Barry meant only "the least violent inmates in the prison population" would be released. Williams said the law dictating who can be released under the program was followed, but critics argue that the department interpreted it incorrectly and released prisoners who are considered "violent" by federal and city standards.

After charges last week that violent criminals were freed, the Corrections Department began reexamining all the records of inmates released under the program, an action that Williams said had been planned all along for a final report. The early release program was simply a stopgap measure that hardly made a dent in the District's bulging prison population. When Barry declared the emergency, the city's prisons held 7,950 inmates, or about 600 more than the rated capacity, according to D.C. government figures. Despite the early releases, the prisons still held 7,840 inmates, or about 500 more than capacity, when the emergency measure expired on Oct. 1.

At the time that Barry declared the emergency, he said that about 350 prisoners would be released over a three-month period. Instead, about 870 inmates were freed.

In announcing the program, Barry said he wanted to reassure the public that "no prisoner convicted of a violent crime will have his sentence reduced under the emergency law." But the department released inmates convicted of robbery, attempted robbery, assault and weapons convictions.

Robbery, attempted robbery and assault are considered violent crimes by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The D.C. Criminal code also includes robbery and assault in its definition of a "crime of violence."

The debate over the early release plan is entangled in politics. Parris, a longtime critic of the District-run Lorton prison in Fairfax County in his congressional district, has introduced a resolution to rescind the pending legislation before the House District of Columbia Committee that would enable the city to continue the early release program permanently.

Parris, ranking Republican on the committee, said yesterday the committee is scheduled to meet today to consider his resolution. Even if a majority of the committee opposes his position, which appears likely, Parris can invoke a provision of the D.C. charter to request expedited consideration of the measure by the full House.

Parris said the bill endangers the public by returning dangerous criminals to the streets.

Robbers and inmates convicted of assault were included in the release program because those crimes were not specifically ruled out by the law, Williams said in defense of the program.

The new law prohibits the mayor from reducing the sentence of any prisoner serving a life term or mandatory sentence, or one who was convicted of committing a violent felony, "including a sentence for homicide, rape, assault with intent to rob, a sex offense other than rape, extortion, kidnapping, assault with a dangerous weapon, or armed robbery."

However, a briefing paper that was distributed to corrections workers reworded the statute and instructed them to release inmates not serving time for "certain violent felonies; specificially homicide (1st or 2nd degree), rape, any violent felony sex offense other than rape, armed robbery, assault with intent to rob, assault with a dangerous weapon, extortion or kidnapping."

Corrections workers in the department's records office who were deciding which prisoners to release were confused. "They would ask each other, 'Hey, does this guy charged with robbery get out? How about this guy charged with assault? Isn't that a violent crime?' " said one corrections worker.

The confusion was exacerbated when an official instructed workers that early releases were permissible for inmates serving mandatory drug sentences if the prisoner's court records did not specifically state that the term was mandatory, even though such persons were not releaseable under the new law.

"In those cases, {the workers} knew that the charge the person was convicted of carried a mandatory sentence," said one corrections employe. "But {the official} said it had to be written down in their records, so {the workers} treated those cases like regular sentences and released them early." Williams denied that such an instruction was given.

Corrections officials have complained that the press is blowing the program out of proportion. "The offenders who were released were going to be coming back into the community in a matter of days anyway," said Williams. "This was always supposed to just be a safety valve."

Critics complain that, in addition to the public safety issue, the program will send a signal to potential criminals "not to worry, the jail is full" and will allow some prisoners to serve extremely lenient sentences.

For example, a man convicted of assault and sentenced to one year is eligible for parole in three months and 10 days after receiving credit for good behavior.

The inmate's parole eligibility would be further advanced by the early release plan that takes off another 90 days. So the prisoner, who was sentenced to a year, could end up serving only 10 days before being granted parole.

"It's a loophole of the emergency powers act," said one law enforcement official. "They were cranking a lot of inmates like this out of Occoquan."