The Michigan sheriff makes a routine arrest, fingerprints his suspect and sends the prints to Washington where the Federal Bureau of Investigation's experts discover within hours the suspect is really a long-missing ax murderer from the Eastern Shore. That only happens on television, folks. Turns out it now takes the FBI 27 workdays, not hours, to complete the average fingerprint check. By that time the ax murderer has long since escaped to Hawaii.

Well, the FBI has moved to shorten that backlog by simply refusing for one year to process fingerprint search requests from banking institutions and state and local authorities who submit the requests for employment and licensing purposes.

That means only law-enforcement-related requests will be serviced, much to the consternation of some states and localities that require an FBI fingerprint check as a condition of employment for some jobs. Even if state agencies maintain good fingerprint files, the FBI has the only nationwide fingerprint register and Americans are, to say the least, mobile.

"We want to get the backlog down to 15 workdays," said the FBI's Wiley Thompson, "and give priority" to the law enforcement requests. The bureau figures it will take a year of hard work to do that.

Further, when it starts servicing banking and state employment checks again, it will charge a user fee, perhaps $11 or $12 per fingerprint check. The money will go to pay for additional FBI fingerprint checkers.

There are already some rumblings in Congress about the cutbacks, which took effect Oct. 1. Thompson said the new fingerprint policy was a tough decision, reached after consultation with the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget.