In the debate over the District's emergency early-release program for Lorton inmates, a basic fact seems to be overlooked. Inmates' sentences are being reduced by a matter of weeks, in most cases by considerably less than three months. It is disingenuous, to say the least, for opponents of the program to condemn this policy out of an alleged consideration for public safety.

A person who is released, say, in October is essentially the same person who is released in any case in December or January. If opponents of early release wish to ensure the maximum degree of punishment the law allows, they should put the argument frankly on that basis. The person who, for whatever reason, returns to the community a brief time before his maximum-sentence release date is no greater or lesser a threat to public safety at that particular moment than at any other time in the proximate future.

One could argue that shorter prison sentences might increase public safety. We know that imprisonment is a destructive, deteriorative experience. The longer a person stays in prison, the harder it is for him to withstand the daily and hourly negative influences that prison life imposes. In great part, the tragically high recidivism rates in this jurisdiction can be traced to the imposition of the heaviest prison sentences in the United States.

Emergency early-release programs have been operated successfully, with no damage to public safety, throughout the country. This policy offers the District at least a temporary mitigation of the current illegal and inhumane prison overcrowding.

ANNE KNIGHT Chevy Chase