YES, IT WAS MILDLY startling to learn, thanks to Rep. John J. Cavanaugh (D-Neb.), that the District has been giving CETA jobs to more than two dozen inmates at Lorton Reformatory. This sounds more curious, if not actually scandalous, because several of those who earned $8,900 or more last year are serving long sentences. Why should prisoners get public-service jobs when there are thousands of people seeking work who have not committed crimes?

Like other CETA misadventures, this is a a well-intentioned effort that went astray. It's hard to fault the city corrections department for wanting to expand job programs at Lorton, or for turning to CETA as a handy source of funds. Federal rules permit programs for prisoners; what got overlooked or ignored was the requirement limiting the programs to inmates likely to be released soon after their training ends. As for the salaries, federal rules require CETA pay scales to be comparable to those for similar public or private jobs. Apparently no one was troubled by the disparities at institutions such as Lorton, where the average worker in a prison-industry job earns slightly more than $100 per month.

The worst abuses in the Lorton program have been stopped. In response to Rep. Cavanaugh's complaint and new national CETA restrictions, the city has cut the salaries to $6,561 per year and limited the program to inmates eligible for parole or release within about 18 months. Rep. Cavanaugh is not satisfied with that. He believes that prison job-training programs should have lower salaries and require participants to use their earnings to support their families or make some restitution for their crimes. Accordingly, he has just introduced a bill to bar any CETA payments to incarcerated people.

Mr. Cavanaugh may have some useful ideas about how prison job programs ought to work. CETA, even as overhauled, does not fit perfectly at Lorton. But perfection should not be the standard here. Until other sources of money are available, it would be rash to cut off any program that can help equip some inmates to return to productive places in society.