North Carolina is looking at ways to reduce its prison population -- not because the state has gone suddenly progressive but because it isrunning out of prison space.

A study by the Citizens Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration, presented to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. on Wednesday, offers some two dozen proposals for reducing North Carolina's prison population. The proposals are, in general, less startling than the situation that led to the study in the first place:

North Carolina has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation -- 250 inmates for every 100,000 citizens, compared with the national rate of 163 per 100,000. Only Nevada and South Carolina keep a higher proportion of their citizens behind bars. North Carolina has more prison units than any other state and more prisoners, in absolute numbers, than all but four states (Texas, California, New York and Florida).

And yet North Carolina's crime rate is among the 15 lowest in the nation. The commission has found no evidence of any link between the state's high incarceration rate and its relatively low crime rate. It has found only that North Carolina places a higher reliance than most states on incarceration as a form of punishment.

According to the commission headed by Judge Willis P. Whichard of the state court of appeals, imprisonment is too ineffective (in terms of reducing recidivism) and too costly to justify continuing the present trend.

The commission's recommendations include many that have become commonplace by now: increased use of community-based penalties for all misdemeanors and for less- serious felonies; more reliance on probation and significantly augmented probation staffs; an end to revocation of probation on purely technical grounds; wider use of victim restitution and community-service programs; shorter sentences.

The fact that the proposals do not represent any radical departures from what is coming to be the conventional wisdom -- and the fact that commission members include prosecutors, criminal lawyers, public defenders, state legislatures and ex-offenders -- may increase the chances that Hunt and the state legislature will adopt many of them.

And if it happens in North Carolina, there is a good chance of similar steps being taken in other jurisdictions, as more and more states find themselves with severely overcrowded prison facilities and too little money for new ones. Fiscal reality is transforming what once was an issue between liberals and conservatives into a purely pragmatic debate. As the commission report observes:

"The high cost of (incarceration) might be justified if it clearly produced a safer environment for North Carolina citizens. The social benefits of the state's high incarceration rate appear, however, to fall short of intended effects and public expectations."

And not just in North Carolina. The United States as a whole has the third highest rate of incarceration in the industrialized world, outstripped only by South Africa and the Soviet Union. With costs ranging from $9,000 to $26,000 a year per prisoner -- and with recidivism rates climbing -- alternatives have to be found.

As Judge Whichard put it in an interview: "The choice is between doing at least some of what we have recommended and spending millions and millions of dollars in new prison construction, at $54,000 per cell."

With economic conditions as they are, there may not be any choice at all.