FROM A FEDERAL COURT in Alabama has come some good news for that state and for the general cause of prison reform. Federal district judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. has just put the state's horrendous prison system into "receivership" in the custody of the new governor, Forrest H. James Jr.

That may not sound too important or encouraging. Agreements between judges and administrative officials have become a major factor in public policy as courts have been called on, more and more, to relieve unsafe, unfair or inhumane conditions in prisons, mental hospitals and other institutions. The state of Maryland is now struggling to comply with a federal court command to end the gross overcrowding in its prisons. Not long ago, District officials were being hauled into court almost on a monthly basis over breakdowns in services and facilities at the old city jail.

The defaults by Alabama officials, though, had far exceeded those seen in the Washington area. Over the years, Judge Johnson has had good cause to intervene to combat unconstitutionally cruel or discriminatory practices in so many fields of state policy -- including education, mental health and employment, as well as corrections -- that some have called him the "real governor" of the state. Former governor George Wallace's policies of resistance and confrontation with the court had retarded change and made the situation much more difficult.

Gov. James has a more constructive attitude. He seems to recognize that, to reduce the role of the courts, state officials must meet their basic obligations to treat citizens fairly and decently. He has acknowledged that conditions in Alabama's prisons are "indefensible." And he apparently proposed the novel "receivership" approach as a way of circumventing an obstructive corrections board and gaining more freedom to change policies and personnel.

It's a good start. Gov. James has not yet developed detailed plans, much less obtained the resources and political support that basic changes in the prisons and other state institutions will require. And he is bound to find, as Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes is learning, that fresh approaches to corrections problems are very hard to advance. Perhaps by reviewing Maryland's experience, Alabama can get some useful ideas and avoid some difficulties down the line. And if Gov. James perseveres on an innovative and forceful path, it's even possible that he could show some other states some ways to end conflicts with the Constitution and the courts.