WHO CAN remember the last time any member of Congress from Northern Virginia had a sensible out-loud thought about what to do for or with the District of Columbia's Lorton correctional complex? The time-honored political sport there has been to see how many ways the word Lorton can be used to rev up ugly thoughts about the District that divert attention from shallow records of service to Northern Virginia constituents. But now that political winds have shifted on both sides of the Potomac, some reasonable legislative help for the place is coming from one Virginia congressman who has never resorted to District-bashing and whose own district does not even include the D.C.-run complex.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R) has taken pains to touch bases with the incoming administration of Mayor-elect Sharon Pratt Dixon before making his proposal public. Mr. Wolf's idea is to set up a 21-member commission that would examine ways to improve the District's correctional facilities while working to close down Lorton by 2010. The replacement facilities would be "state-of-the-art" and if possible located in the District. The congressman has been careful to emphasize his belief that city officials are doing "an excellent job" managing Lorton.

Rep. Wolf says one objective of the commission would be to make the city's correctional facilities into a model system, with the best in drug, alcohol, education and rehabilitation programs assisted by private business and education groups. "The election of Mrs. Dixon presents a unique opportunity for cooperation," the congressman notes, adding that new and better prison facilities could eliminate a source of interjurisdictional friction while improving what are now slim opportunities for city inmates to develop "basic life skills and a trade that can be used upon release to avoid a future life of crime."

While nothing in this proposal guarantees such progress, neither is there evidence of any deceptive plotting merely to blow away Lorton and be done with it. Mr. Wolf says he's merely offering to help see what can be done through cooperation as opposed to political agitation. Fair enough.