A cell on the second floor of Loudoun County's jail has just enough room for an inmate to sleep and stand.

Put two inmates in that space, about half the size of a typical cell in Virginia, and things get really cramped. Yet that is what county officials increasingly must do. "Any time that jail is more crowded, the tension, the hostility, is much higher," Lt. John Hickman, a jail administrator, said yesterday.

But a plan to ease chronic crowding this year by releasing more nonviolent inmates has become a casualty of the county's fiscal problems.

The county can't afford the $30,000 to hire a program administrator, said Ted McDaniel, director of the Community Diversion Incentive Program, a state-financed agency that oversees the release of convicted felons.

"We could save a lot of jail space," said McDaniel, who proposes allowing inmates charged with misdemeanors to serve sentences at home, under strict supervision. "All we can do is wait for the financial situation to sort itself out."

In the last few years, the number of inmates in Loudoun, Northern Virginia's most rural jurisdiction, has increased steadily. The average number of inmates in the Leesburg facility has hovered near 100 recently, far more than the 63 the jail was designed to hold, McDaniel said. The jail population reached a high of 131 one day last year, one jail official said.

County officials said they are reluctant to start the new jail release program at a time when other services are likely to be cut. Loudoun officials expect a budget shortfall in July of at least $31 million, or about 10 percent of the total budget.

"It's a wonderful idea . . . . It would save the county money," said Assistant County Administrator Russ Blackburn. "The county is in a major budget crisis at this time . . . . The funds are just not available."

The program, according to McDaniel, would save the county about $60 daily, or about $20,000 annually, on each released inmate's room and board.

Loudoun's jail crowding mirrors problems at facilities throughout the state, including in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties. A state Commission on Prison and Jail Overcrowding has said the state's inmate population nearly doubled, to 14,800, from 1983 to 1989. Several jurisdictions already have started supervised release programs for inmates charged with misdemeanors.

McDaniel and jail authorities say they expect crowding in Loudoun to continue to worsen, in part because of growth in the county and because a slumping economy breeds more crimes such as theft and burglary. Jail officials say crowding has increased tension among inmates and caused fights. The cramped conditions, they said, also limit their ability to offer counseling, education and other programs.

"It's going to get worse," said Lt. William Peach, a jail official. "As the county grows, you're going to have more crime."

Jail officials had hoped to begin architectural work this year on a new 140-bed wing that would eliminate double-bunking in cells designed for one person. But officials decided last fall to put off the proposal for a few years because of the budget squeeze, Hickman said.

Under McDaniel's plan, nonviolent inmates convicted of misdemeanors such as larceny or marijuana use would be eligible to live under supervision at home and perform community service. They would have to undergo psychological testing before being allowed to participate.

McDaniel estimated that more than 40 inmates would be eligible for the program at a given time. About 10 inmates would have been eligible this week, Hickman said.

Currently, about 20 inmates are in the supervised-release program for convicted felons, McDaniel said. Because the state is responsible for jailing felons, it pays the bill.