ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 19 -- Under a new program begun today, Anne Arundel County judges will be able to sentence criminals to imprisonment at home, then use video cameras and breath-alcohol monitors to make sure they stay there and stay sober.

Under the system, designed to keep drunk drivers and minor criminals well-behaved and out of jail, jail officials can telephone an inmate at home and ask him to stand before a small video camera and see if he is really there. The inmate also can be asked to blow into a small breath-alcohol monitoring device whose large digital read-out can be seen on the video camera.

"It's a very valuable tool," said Bruce C. Williams, administrative judge of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. "It can be used in situations where the crime is minor, but where someone should be closely monitored." Williams said the cameras would probably be used for people convicted of such crimes as drunk driving and disorderly conduct.

County officials said similar video monitoring systems are used in Alexandria, Virginia Beach, Roanoke and several western cities. An assortment of other electronic monitoring systems similar to remote telephone pagers are used in many other parts of the country to enforce sentences involving confining prisoners to their homes.

"Judges have been asking for something like this for several years," said Francis J. Zylwitis, the county's criminal justice director. "Until recently, the technology wasn't available."

About 30 people are expected to participate and Zylwitis said it would cost the county $24,000 to lease the equipment, including 30 cameras for inmates to take home, until next June. He said inmates will be charged up to about $500 a month -- depending on their ability to pay -- to take part in the program.

For record-keeping, the guard who calls an inmate can press a button and get a printed photograph of the inmate, which is stamped with the time and date. "The idea is to verify someone's presence," said County Executive O. James Lighthizer. "It's a middle step between probation and sentencing someone to jail."

Thomas J. Curley Jr., administrative judge of the county's District Court, where most drunk driving cases are heard, said the system would give judges the ability to order somebody to stay at home every evening and not drink, then enforce the order. Because jails are crowded, Curley said, "we need alternatives. This is a good one."