The D.C. Corrections Department, trying to reduce crowding at the city jail, has started a program that pays the bonds of some inmates who are awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes and cannot afford to make bail.

The $100,000 in seed money for the Bonding Initiative Program comes from more than $1 million in fines that the city has paid for failing to keep the inmate population at the jail below levels ordered by a federal judge.

Since the program began in the middle of September, 21 inmates awaiting trial have had their bonds paid by the pilot project, corrections officials said.

Although the program could not have been started without the approval of the judiciary, some D.C. Superior Court judges privately have criticized it.

According to court sources, some judges believe the program may infringe on judicial powers. They maintain that because judges set bail to ensure that suspects show up for court proceedings, having a third party post the bond may increase the chance that they won't appear.

Some judges also have questioned the adequacy of the screening process by which participants are chosen. But corrections officials noted that in the five weeks since the program started, only a fraction of the 130 eligible inmates were accepted.

Of the 21 who were accepted into the program, one was returned to jail because a warrant was issued in another jurisdiction after he had been accepted into the program and two appeared in court; the rest are awaiting trial.

The city has been under a court-ordered limit of 1,694 inmates at the D.C. Jail since 1983. The corrections department is under orders to halt new admissions if the limit is exceeded. As of Friday, there were 1,692 inmates at the jail, corrections officials said.

The inmate limit has been increasingly difficult to meet because of the surge in arrests for drug crimes and other offenses related to the use of crack cocaine in the city.

City officials first discussed such a program more than a year ago, but the plan was delayed because of concerns about liability if a person in the program injured someone after being released from jail. Talks began again a few months ago.

To be eligible for release under the program, suspects must be awaiting trial on a bond of $5,000 or less that they have been unable to pay. Suspects charged with murder, manslaughter, sex offenses other than prostitution, arson, kidnapping or the manufacture of drugs, as well as those with prior bail violations, are ineligible.

Corrections employees review each case, checking the severity of the offense and for past criminal records. They investigate references and try to measure how cooperative family members will be in helping the suspect meet conditions for release, such as receiving counseling or addiction treatment.

Those who meet the requirements are interviewed by a coordinator, who makes a list of those accepted.

That list is forwarded to the United Black Fund, a nonprofit agency that was selected to administer the $100,000 revolving fund. The agency then makes out checks for the bail amount, usually 10 percent of whatever bond was set. A bondsman then picks up the check, posts bail for the inmate and takes the inmate to the agency that will monitor him or her during pretrial release.

The inmates must agree to repay the amount posted to secure their release, plus a "maintenance fee" of no more than $25. They also must agree to undergo drug testing, counseling and employment assistance through the United Black Fund.

The monitoring agencies in the program are Bonabond, a private bond organization, and the Bureau of Rehabilitation. The Corrections Department pays the agencies $5.31 a day for each participant they supervise, said Pat Wheeler, spokeswoman for the department. It costs $54 a day to house an inmate at the jail, Wheeler said.

If a participant does not show up for a court date, the bond is forfeited. The bondsman pays half the full bond amount and the other half is paid from the revolving fund, said corrections employee Toni Perry.

Staff writer Elsa Walsh contributed to this report.