WHENEVER CITY HALL'S leaders trot out their dogeared list of excuses for local government failures, they include the time-honored complaint that the courts keep butting and setting policies. That's a sad fact, all right -- but all too often the government has only itself to blame for court interference. A most glaring example -- so awful that it has infuriated one of the most patient judges you could find -- is the District's handling of conditions in its jail.

The story dates back to the 1960s, when horribly cramped and filthy conditions in the city's ancient jail facility led to a court suit. The complaints came before U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant, who considered them for some time before concluding that incarceration at the jail amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The judge waited and waited for city officials to stop pleading political and financial paralysis, but little changed, except for a wait-till-we-get-a-new-jail plea from city officials.

Judge Bryant got tired of waiting. He ordered the city to clean up its correctional act or else let some of the inmates go; and he spelled out certain basic requirements that any decent jail would meet without having to be ordered to -- clean linens, medical care and so on. Included in the judge's orders was a requirement that inmates found to be mentally ill be transferred to other facilities within 48 hours.

So what has Judge Bryant -- who is now the chief judge of the court -- found at this point?

"The court cannot escape the conclusion that to be mentally ill and to be transferred to [a mental unit in the jail] is to be relegated closer to oblivion than treatment." In his sternly worded order, the judge wrote that the 70 or more mentally ill inmates in the jail have lived in "bedlam" alongside inmates not considered mentally ill; that many had been confined to their cells for more than 24 hours; that there was an inadequate number of corrections officers in this unit; and that untrained staff members were dispensing dangerous mind-altering medication. Though the city submitted a plan in December for improving conditions, the judge said compliance, which involves the hiring or assignment of 21 people to existing facilities -- not a major financial outlay -- has been "dismal."

The latest order is simple and direct: bring conditions up to "minimun standards of decency" within 60 days or transfer those inmates to better facilities within the same 48-hour period specified in the order five years ago.

Is this too much to ask the city government to accomplish? Will continued inertia lead to contemp-of-court proceedings? Isn't this very lack of response from city hall what led to the downfall of the last administration and the election of a mayor who promised quick and sensitive action? Tune in again in 60 days.