GREAT OAKS, a Maryland state institution for the mentally retarded, built in 1971 to house about 500 persons, recently reported that 308 of its patients had been injured during a four-month period last year -- and that there is no explanation for a quarter of those injuries. But people have their suspicions. One patient's mother told a reporter, "I'd be arrested if I treated an animal the way my daughter is treated at Great Oaks." It seems at least safe to say the persons confined at Great Oaks are suffering the familiar fate of inmates of these sad and terrible places.

Great Oaks' problems begin with money. There isn't enough. Not enough for the proper numbers or kinds of staff. At the relatively low wages paid most staff people there (under $10,000 per year), few skilled people are drawn to the institution. Many of the people who do work there quickly become frustrated with and indifferent to the human beings in their care. So Great Oaks has requested about $400,000 from the state government for the next fiscal year. And accoarding to John Monaghan, director of the state Mental Retardation Administration, Great Oaks will get that money. But Mr. Monaghan notes that $4 million is required to meet the minimum needs of all the state's institutions for the mentally retarded next year. And that money, he says, is not forthcoming. Nor, he adds, is continued support of Great Oaks likely, either. The $400,000 probably will be a one-shot deal.

You have heard it all before. In a world where there are so many claims on tax money and where so many of the competing claimants are groups and individuals for whom the funds can make a total difference, well, the mentally retarded get put last. Funds that can help bring a healthy child food or education seem so much more attractive and sensible an investment than funds spent making the plight of the severely mentally retarded a little less harsh. Accordingly, in Maryland as elsewhere, few legislators keep their commitment to the retarded. For instance, the Maryland legislature has passed a bill requiring that every retarded person in a state institution have an individualized treatment plan. But money for this has never been budgeted.

Some Maryland legislators contend that they have not given full funding to institutions for the mentally retarded because there is currently a debate over the value of institutionalizing retarded people. And some advocates for retarded people believe that institutions for the retarded should be closed and their patients sent to small group homes. But while getting the retarded out of jail-like institutions where abuses often occur and into more normal, home-like settings would be fine, it is not on tomorrow morning's agenda. It does not, in other words, remove the need to improve current conditions at state institutions. There is some sense in which a government and a society can be judged precisely by the degree to which they are willing to pay out something to care for these people who have so little defense and so little chance to compete for the comforts and help they need. It is cruel beyond imagining to treat them as we do. A civilized state will find a way to do otherwise.