Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton, who made his reputation by slashing state spending, is preparing to launch a major prison construction program when the state legislature meets here next month.

At the same time many states are scrapping or scaling down such projects, the normally frugal Dalton is getting ready to request $80 million for the next two years to continue or begin construction on five new prisons and shut down or patch up some of the old, deteriorating ones.

The top elected official in a state that, in fact and reputation, has some of the stiffest sentencing and parole practices in the country, Dalton argues that the prisons are essential to cope with a prison population explosion that could top 13,000 prisoners by 1985.

"We're going to have a 25 percent increase in the number of inmates if judges and juries keep sending them to us like they are now -- and I'm not about to tell them to stop," Dalton says.

Virginia now ranks 12th nationally in the percentage of its population it locks up and is 10th in the length of its prison sentences.

The Dalton proposal already has touched off heated political debate about cheaper alternatives to incarceration that have been tested successfully in many other states -- California, Minnesota, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Georgia among them.

The argument has pitted Virginia's cherished tradition of no-nonsense punishment for offenders against its strong appetite for fiscal restraint, making unusual allies of some of the state's influential conservatives and progressive penal experts.

With 9,500 inmates in the system now, including 1,200 backed up in county jails, Dalton's critics agree that the prisons are swamped and, in some cases, badly deteriorating.

In the crowded, 180-year-old Richmond Penitentiary, a few blocks from the Virginia state house, beatings and sexual assaults are almost routine. Stabbings in its five-tiered cell blocks, straight out of old James Cagney movies, average five or six a year. One inmate recently hanged himself in the prison hospital.

The critics, however, accuse Dalton and his fellow Republican, state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, of playing costly politics with the problem.

"I'm never going to agree to build all these new prisons," vows Del. Frank Slayton (D-South Boston), a former county prosecutor who now chairs the subcommittee that oversees budget appropriations for the Department of Corrections.

"But we have a governor who wants to run for the U.S. Senate and we have an attorney general who wants to run for governor, so we're hearing a very hard line."

Slayton argues the state should adopt a regional jail concept and restitution programs based in local communities. Such programs have operated well and less expensively in Georgia and several other states where they have been tried for nonviolent offenders, he says.

Coleman, pointing to polls showing that the public is willing to spend more money for prisons, puts little stock in what he calls "these liberal, pie-in-the-sky" alternatives.

Prisons, he says, "are for punishment, not really for renovation, and they ought to put a stigma on people" who commit crimes.

"If I have to choose between spending more money to build more prisons and putting dangerous criminals back on the street, I'll choose the prisons," Coleman says.

Although Coleman says the Georgia program -- which houses nonviolent offenders in community facilities and allows them to leave during the day for work assignments -- has only been used on its "cream puffs," others support it. Most of the money earned by Georgia prisoners is used to compensate their victims and to help defray the state's room-and-board costs.

Del. Erwin (Shad) Solomon (D-Bath), a member of the Virginia Crime Commission, says such alternatives to incarceration are an obvious solution to the soaring prison population.

Solomon accuses the Virginia corrections department of continuing to "warehouse" inmates and of using the overcrowding of prisons as "an excuse not to have viable programs."

Even Dalton's own director of corrections, Terrell Don Hutto, says there is no doubt that prisons "are an expensive way to protect the public safety." Hutto believes 70 to 80 percent of Virginia's inmates could be diverted to more effective community programs without any risk or increased cost to the public.

Still, Hutto and several others who support prison alternatives want the funds sought by Dalton for building and renovation because they don't realistically expect Virginia to appropriate much money for anything else.

"It's often much easier for politicians to take a harder line," Hutto says. "It's easier to explain and probably more popular, but ultimately not as safe to the community in my view."

Dalton, apparently, disagrees. His $80 million request will be in the first chunk of an eventual $240-million construction and renovation price tag for prison facilities. The funds will be in addition to a $271.7-million budget request to pay for current juvenile and adult operations.

"Prisons are the brick-and-mortar need of the times, unfortunately," says one Dalton aide. "We don't think his program is going to appear excessive to anybody."

The state's passion for prisons is all the more controversial now that many other states are abandoning the prison concept, says Dr. Paul Keve, a professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University and the corrections department's own consultant.

Citing Minnesota as an example, Keve, who has worked in the Minnesota and Delaware prison systems, says the two states "are like different worlds. You can feel the pholosophical difference."

But, Keve adds, you have to "understand corrections not in terms of corrections but in terms of political science."

Nowhere is that argument better illustrated than in a recent and heated parole law debate.

The controversy swirled around a practice begun last summer of releasing inmates who are within six months of finishing their sentences. Sponsored by Del Slayton and passed by the General Assembly last session, the new early release law was intended to ease the crowded prisons and provide some supervision for prisoners who otherwise would re-enter society without any checks on them.

But when two of the first 1,000 inmates released early under the new law were arrested and charged in separate murder cases, the public outcry was immediate.

Coleman, Dalton and several newspapers in the state began calling for the law's repeal. The controversy swelled when it was discovered that confusion in computing "time off" for good behavior had resulted in erroneous sentence reductions -- allowing some inmates to be released even sooner.

Slayton, taking the brunt of the criticism at a time when he was up for re-election, found himself almost the lone defender of the law.

While agreeing that the measure may need some revision, Slayton says the law is a good one but was improperly administered by the corrections department. And he is furious at Dalton for trying to disassociate himself from the bill, which Salyton says the governor agreed to support last session. f

"Most of those immates were going to get out anyway in six months, and they would have gotten no supervision at all then," Slayton says. He also worries that publicity about the few who "screw up" diverts attention from the majority of parolees who aren't getting into trouble again.

Coleman, protesting that such arguments are "small confort" to the families of murder victims, has continued to push to hve the state's parole board abolished as part of a uniform sentencing proposal that would set statewide sentencing guidelines. Judges could deviate from the rules, but would have to justify any changes in writing.

Uniform sentencing, Coleman argues, would eliminate a definite geographical disparity in sentences in which the average robbery sentence in Alexandria, for example, is seven years, but more than 32 years in Bedford in southwest Virginia.

Critics of the measure say they fear it would result in even stiffer sentencing and keep inmates in prison longer by narrowing judges' discretion to impose lighter penalties if they see fit.

They also believe it would remove any incentive for inmates to participate in treatment or rehabilitation programs.

Nevertheless, the "tough on crime" posture of Virginia is one that the state should hold dear, says the attorney general. "It ought not be denigrated just because it's popular."