THE UNITED STATES has a higher proportion of its citizens in jail than any other country, except South Africa and the Soviet Union. The total inmate population has nearly doubled in the past decade, to roughly 400,000. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger touches on the corrections crisis in his annual report, emphasizing the burgeoning prison population and the need for both more prison capacity and better training programs to avoid leaving ex-inmates as economic cripples likely to commit more crime. Meanwhile, Alabama state officials are in court this week trying to persuade a federal judge to end 10 years of court supervision of that state's prison system.

Thirty-nine states, including the three jurisdictions in this area, are involved in prison-conditions litigation, in which prisoners have proven or are attempting to prove that conditions violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Conditions in Alabama's prisons in 1974 were horrible: some cells with six men in a space four-by-eight feet, with no beds, a hole in the middle of the floor for a toilet and no light or running water; a building called the "dog house," locked from the outside, with no supervision of inmates for days at a time, one meal per day--perhaps without utensils--and one shower every 11 days; some inmates not merely being raped, but having their bodies bartered among more powerful inmates.

After a court decision on the merits, there is usually a period of several years during which the judge must work with government officials to formulate and then put into effect a remedy. This remedial stage of litigation is often even more complicated than the original trial, as courts and litigants struggle with the conflicts between constitutional requirements of decent treatment, on the one hand, and fiscal and political realities, on the other. Thus far, the entire Alabama saga has lasted 12 years, and several other cases are comparably ancient.

As the chief justice noted, 37 states now have mandatory sentencing statutes, and 123 new anti- crime bills will only add to prison crowding and the associated problems. Society is in a mood to get tough with criminals and put a premium on protection from would-be repeat offenders. But it will always be tough to find a constituency for the budget choices implied by a sound corrections policy.

Federal judges are not elected legislators charged with policy and budget decisions. These judicial interventions are the result of the political failures of legislators, executive officials and voters at all levels of government--across this region and the nation-- who let prison squalor and violence mount to constitutionally and morally intolerable levels. The alternative is to pay the full price for criminal justice, as suggested by the chief justice.