TO UNVEIL his latest proposals on criminal justice, a pair of sensible steps dealing with education and prison life, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger chose the forum of a commencement. The chief justice described his ideas as "affordable in an economic sense -- and feasible in terms of the psychology and the political and economic realities of 1981." The essence of Mr. Burger's remarks Sunday at the George Washington University Law School commencement appears on the opposite page today and suggests his major themes: improving the quality, status and training of prison guards while, at the same time, requiring all prisoners to learn to read, write and absorb some basic "skilled or semi-skilled" vocation the might provide an alternative after prison to renewing a life of crime.

Although neither proposal is new, the chief justice's willingness to defend their merits -- especially the inmate training and education idea -- remains noteworthy. For one thing, again Mr. Burger has compelled those who have criticized his views on the criminal justice system as unremittingly "hard line" to step back and reflect. At a time when many leading law enforcement experts in this country have begun reassessing -- or have already requdiated -- the concept of prisoner rehabilitation through counseling, education and job training as a rational, though uncertain, approach to crime control, the chief justice files a powerful dissent.

Although his latest speech does not disavow the belief that primary function of prisons is to punish criminal misdeeds, he still manages to urge that those prisoners willing to prepare for a lawful future life deserve incentives such as reduced sentences. Clearly, the rehabilitative goal is alive and well in his underlying vision of criminal justice reform.

Nor does he neglect the dilemma of improving both the moral of correctional personnel and the quality of supervision in the nation's prisons. There is something to be said for Mr. Burger's advocacy of a national academy of corrections. Creation of such an institution, comparable to the FBI academy in the quality of its teachers and technical resources, inevitably would improve the professionalism of correctional guards in federal, state and even local prisons. Mr. Burger has not only made some general proposals but, as in previous speeches, he has not hesitated to suggest specific guidelines, including the idea that the new "academy" might exploit the FBI academy's facilities when not in use.

Precisely because of his practical concern with redeeming the moral and institutional calamity that is prison life, the chief justice should pay close attention to any demanding budget cuts imposed within the criminal justice field, either by the Reagan administration or by the states and localities. His role as a key "lobbyist" for reforms throughout the criminal justice system makes him a logical person to speak out when reductions of funds impinge on the already shocking quality of so many of those institutions and threaten any essential improvements.