In Prince George's County Circuit Court last year, defense attorney Richard Sothoron tried to find a subtle way to tell a judge what had happened to his client, Frederick Vlachos, while Vlachos was awaiting sentencing in the county jail.

"There is reference in this probation report, and this is the first time that I have stated this for the record, that Mr. Vlachos had been assaulted since his incarceration over . . . "

Sothoron was interrupted by Judge Howard S. Chasanow, who got right to the point: "I understand he has been sodomized in the jail," Chasanow said, according to a transcript of the court proceeding.

While some judges say that they never hear about rapes and sexual assaults in the county jail, others say that they hear about jail rapes at least several times a year. Those judges say that the problem deeply disturbs them.

"We're not rehabilitating people," says District Court Judge Joseph Casula, referring to the rapes. "We're not even punishing them. We're subjecting them to torture and degradation."

Circuit Court and District Court judges say that the potential for rape in the county jail influences some of their sentences. They do not let the rapes affect their sentences for repeat offenders or persons convicted of violent crimes. County jail director Arnett Gaston says it is an old trick for inmates to claim to be rape victims to try to get lenient sentences.

But because of the likelihood of rape, some men who are first offenders or who have not committed violent crimes avoid incarceration entirely.

"All these people who scream about locking up the drunk drivers don't know what they're asking for," says Judge Vincent Femia. "If we knew that we could send someone to jail without him being sexually assaulted, there'd be a lot more people going to jail. The rapes work to the disadvantage of the judge who wants to send someone to jail for a short time to teach him a lesson."

James Edward Stead is one example of someone who avoided incarceration. Convicted in May of child molesting, he was given probation rather than a jail sentence because Judge Femia says he was afraid Stead would be raped.

John Howard Day is another example. Convicted of automobile manslaughter for killing a man while driving his pickup truck, he was sentenced last November to six months in the county jail, but Judge Femia changed his sentence to six months of community service after Day tried to commit suicide because he was threatened with rape during his first week in jail.

In addition, judges say the possibility of rape sometimes causes them to take into consideration a factor that otherwise would be irrelevant to a person's sentence: physical size. Short, slender convicted men are likely to get lenient sentences or avoid jail terms.

"When you have a frail person there's an obvious potential for sexual violence," says Circuit Court Judge Chasanow. "I send them to jail for a shorter period of time than I'd like. I don't want it to be such a traumatic exposure that it forever warps their lives."

Another judge says he puts convicted juveniles on probation or gives them shorter sentences than they deserve because he is afraid the juvenile will be raped in the county jail. Says District Court Judge Casula: "I'm very reluctant to send young people to that jail. If a guy was institutionalized before and knows how to handle himself, I'll send him there. Otherwise I won't . . . .They have a feast on them over there."

Judges and lawyers also try to prevent certain defendants from getting raped by asking jail officials to put the defendants in one of the three cells in the "processing" area of the jail. Those cells are in clear view of the guards.

Two years ago, for example, when the son of State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. was sentenced to 18 months in jail with all but one day suspended for breaking into two houses, Judge Chasanow asked a jail official to put the younger Marshall in the jail's processing unit, where he was in clear view of the guards. The official obliged.

Judges who are concerned about the rapes say they cannot do anything to prevent them. But several years ago, Judge Chasanow wrote a letter to jail administrators complaining that certain men he had sentenced had been gang raped in the jail. At the time, the jail was under the control of the sheriff's department; it has since become a separate department of the county government.

County Sheriff Jimmy Aluisi, who was then captain of security at the jail, responded to the letter by installing spotlights in each cell of the jail; but the lights could not be turned off at night. Today, most of the lights are no longer in the jail cells, according to jail spokesman Jim O'Neill, because inmates have broken them. O'Neill said that new lights will be installed within a month.

Prosecuting attorneys say they are troubled that certain defendants get shorter sentences -- or avoid imprisonment entirely -- because of the potential of rape.

"Whether justice is rendered shouldn't be based on that the fear someone will be raped ," says assistant state's attorney Kevin McNeil who prosecuted the child molester's case. "The rapes are a problem for the department of corrections to deal with," he adds, "not the judges or prosecutors."

Defense attorneys say the rapes corrupt the criminal justice system in other ways. County public defender James E. Kenkel, for example, says that county homicide detectives recently pressured one of his clients to confess to a murder by telling him that if he did not confess, he would "get f----- in the ass in jail."

"The line of reasoning," says Kenkel, "was, 'Do you want us to throw you in jail right now or talk to us and we'll help you.' " The suspect confessed, but went to jail anyway and was raped on Feb. 1, Kenkel says. Kenkel plans to argue a motion to suppress the confession on Nov. 3.

Kenkel worries most about the long-term implications of these rapes.

"The rapes are certainly counterproductive to any attempt to rehabilitate," he says. "We know that victims become aggressors and abused children become abusers. In another time and place, jail rape victims are likely to abuse others. Society pays a big price for allowing this situation to exist."