RIGHT IN THE middle of a sharp dispute in Annapolis over prison policies comes bad news for Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes: Twenty-six state prisoners enrolled in work-release programs have just been indicated on charges that include murder, rape, armed robbery and narcotics violations allegedly committed in Baltimore. Whatever one may feel about work-release programs and other parole and probation policies, Maryland's latest prison mess demands a forceful response from the governor.

Investigations are under way. Meanwhile, Gov. Hughes says, fairly, "While not prejudging the matter, the allegations against the inmates and the apparent failures in supervision and in the process for selecting candidates for work-release are extremely serious. They would indicate the need for swift and far-reaching corrective action."

But what is not needed at this point -- and what is starting to flow from predictable corners of the state house -- is a stream of ill-considered overreactions that seize on this news as cause for repealing all enlightened policies and for proceeding to a massive new prison-building program. As we suggested just the other day, a sensible approach lies somewhere between the no-more-prisons and the lock-everybody-up schools. Nobody has been arguing for the release of dangerous criminals. Nor does any thoughtful person want to double prisoners up in tiny cells or throw all law violators together behind bars indefinitely.

These issues deserve careful consideration between sessions. The immediate situation is something else. Evidence points to serious administrative failures at the Brockbridge pre-release center, and officials there have some explaining to do. But until the facts are in, members of the General Assembly should resist irresponsible statements that only serve to stir up fear and unreason.