Given the way in which much of the public reacts to criminals and the perception that few of them get the punishment they deserve, the recent release of two citizens from federal prisons has created a near sonic boom in protests.

In Washington, Judge Nicholas Nunzio reduced the sentence of Abdul Hamid, who had served three years of a 36- to 108-year sentence. Hamid was part of a violent gang of Hanafi Muslims that took 149 people hostage in 1977. His crimes included assault with a deadly weapon and kidnapping while armed. In New Orleans, Frederic Ingram, a businessman imprisoned on 29 counts of bribery, had his sentence commuted by Jimmy Carter.

Instead of being thanked and praised for reviewing the cases and deciding that it was reasonable to lower the nation's immense prison population by two, both Judge Nunzio and then President Carter were loudly denounced.

Nunzio had the worst of it. He was turning loose a wild man, it was said, even though Hamid was a first offender and a model prisoner. Criticism of Carter, though less stormy, came from his own Justice Department, but as it has been in the past few years in the pursuit of white-collar crooks.

Despite the public outrage, the decisions of Nunzio and Carter were enlightened and well worth celebrating. Progress is made anytime the criminal justice system is nudged away from the practice of incarceration and closer to the goal of excarceration. Only the most stubborn refuse to accept the conclusion of the 1973 National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals: "The American correctional system today appears to offer minimum protection to the public and maximum harm to the offender."

Those who favor the depopulation of prisons receive two stock criticisms: they are soft on criminals and they care nothing about the victims or lowering the crime rate.

The soft-on-crime argument has a squishiness of its own. It is based not only on confused notions of what prisons are meant to do -- punish, rehabilitate, deter? -- but it avoids conclusions that are beyond debate. Prisons are excessively costly, ineffective and -- in 25 states -- operating under court orders to eliminate their inhumane conditions.

It isn't softness that inspired Chief Justice Warren Burger to observe that "when a sheriff or a marshal takes a man from a courthouse in a prison van and transports him to confinement for two or three or ten years, this is our act. We have tolled the hell for him. And whether we like it or not, we have made him our collective responsibility. We are free to do something about him. He is not."

This kind of reasoned thinking doesn't get the juices going the way a New York judge did last week when he sentenced a murderer to 15 years to life and angrily cried out that it's time to "build more jails."

It many areas, more jails and prisons are being built. But to no positive results. In "Prison Population and Policy Choices," ABT Associates, a Boston consulting firm, reported to Congress last year that no relationship exists between increasing incarceration rates and the lowering of crime rates. States that have built more prisons tend to have more people in prison regardless of crime rates. Minnesota has a low crime rate and a low incarceration rate. Nevada is high in both crimes and incarceration.

Discoveries are being made that other forms of more effective punishment exist and that prison should be the last, not the first, resort. Halfway houses, alternative sentencing, fines and restitution programs have been proven successes where they have been tried among non-violent first offenders, which is where the start must be made. Few judges dispute that of the 300,000 people now in prisons only a small percentage -- one-sixth or less -- are dangers to society.

To be concerned about the treatment of criminals is not to be incompassionate toward the victims and their families. In fact, judges who publicly the value of prisons are usually fighting the hardest to expand victims' compensation programs.

It is true that many victims can never be compensated, especially those who have suffered violence. But this is no excuse to brutalize criminals, much less lock them up in crime-nurturing cages. The man released by Judge Nunzio had already served three years, which was plenty. In Sweden, which has both a rational criminal justice system and a low crime rate, six months is seen as a long sentence.