A swelling tide of cases has swamped the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, all but strangling the machinery of justice.

"The entire criminal justice system faces potential collapse," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate D.C. Appropriations subcommittee. "Unless Congress and the City Council provide strong leadership and increased resources, the system will falter in a matter of months."

The signs of trouble are everywhere:

* Criminal cases take twice as long to come to trial as they did four years ago and three times as long as in 1973. The average felony case, according to a recent sample, is 13 months old before it is heard by a jury, and the average misdemeanor is eight months.

* Defendants unable to make bond are spending months, sometimes more than a year, in D.C. jail awaiting their day in court. Nearly 1,000 inmates in the jail now are waiting to be tried or sentenced--four times the number in that status just three years ago.

According to recent Department of Corrections figures, 182 defendants have been waiting three to six months to go to trial. Another 98 have been waiting sixth months to a year, and 36 have been waiting a year or longer. Such delays serve to increase the total population in D.C. jail, wracked this week by fires and inmate disturbances, which authorities linked to overcrowding there. A U.S. District Court judge recently threatened to hold city officials in contempt if steps are not taken to relieve the overcrowding.

* Civil cases that took slightly more than a year to resolve in 1979 now take nearly three years. Those that aren't dismissed or settled out of court take even longer to go to trial. Many people, weary of the legal fees and extra court appearances caused by delays, say they are sorry they ever brought their cases to Superior Court.

* Divorce cases that took 10 months to resolve two years ago now take more than a year. Some participants in those cases have been forced to spend thousands of dollars in fees for time their lawyers spent simply sitting in court, waiting for a judge.

* Prosecutors frequently are unable to prepare for trials and sometimes take months to indict defendants because they have more cases than they can handle, officials in the local U.S. Attorney's office said. Prosecutors in the office's misdemeanor division each have up to 125 pending cases, felony prosecutors an average 75. The U.S. Attorney's office last year received $800,000 in additional federal funds to hire 18 more prosecutors to deal with the glut of court cases.

* Lawyers appointed by the court to represent indigent defendants typically are assigned 150 cases or more a year and haven't gotten a raise from the City Council since the program was started more than a decade ago. Low compensation for those attorneys discourages many from taking such work and contributes to delays by encouraging those who take the work to schedule more than they can handle, judges and lawyers say.

Nonetheless, because of the sharp increase in cases and delays, the amount the city spends to provide lawyers for indigent defendants has increased nearly 50 percent since 1978 to $5 million last year and is projected to reach $6 million next year, an increase of 20 percent.

* Cases are routinely continued because one side or the other isn't ready, rendering trial dates virtually meaningless. Some misdemeanor judges schedule as many as 10 trials every day--felony judges four or more--just to satisfy their own concerns that at least one be ready for a jury so they won't be caught idle.

* The Superior Court's budget this year increased more than $2.4 million to $33.4 million. Fees for witnesses last year reached $1.1 million, an increase of more than 25 percent since 1979. Juror fees rose more than 10 percent to $2 million.

Overtime paid to police to appear in court rose to nearly $3 million last year, an increase of 33 percent over the year before.

The court crunch affects nearly everyone, from couples deciding the custody of their children to landlords trying to collect rent, from neighbors suing for property rights to accused robbers trying to win their freedom. Judges, attorneys and prosecutors have become used to delays that only a few years ago would have horrified them.

The court's problems stem in part from an increasingly litigious society, in which people are more eager than ever to take problems to court, and those suits that are filed grow ever more complex.

But the chief reason for the current glut is the reaction of political officeholders and criminal justice authorities to public outcry about crime, about sentences that sometimes seem too lenient and the so-called revolving door. That outcry has led to arrests and convictions in record numbers. As those cases move into the courts and jails, the true cost of cracking down on crime has begun to emerge.

"We are in a potentially dangerous situation," said Judge Bruce S. Mencher. "People lose faith in the courts as the way to solve things."

Herman Bailey, a 32-year-old Washington construction worker with two children, learned first-hand what delays in the overloaded courts can mean. Bailey waited 13 months in jail to come to trial in Superior Court after he was charged with rape and robbery last year. When a jury finally heard his case in May, he was acquitted and released.

"The mental anguish was overwhelming," said Bailey, who lost his job in the interim. "I think I should be compensated for all the time I spent in jail."

Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, echoing the concerns of several judges, said such delays "run counter to our constitutional mandate for a speedy trial. . . . The minute we start accepting a situation like that we begin to desert the ideals that purportedly underlie the whole system of criminal justice. . . . "

The District's problems are shared by many states and cities nationwide, and in some jurisdictions things are even worse.

Lawyers in Connecticut recently filed suit against the governor and other state officials, claiming that a lack of judges has caused average delays of five years or more in bringing civil suits to trial.

And for every city like San Diego, where civil cases on the average take less than a year, there is another like Chicago, where the average wait is more than four years.

"We don't have a problem here compared to other places," said Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I. "I'm chagrined that we have the waiting periods that we do have. I'd like to cut them in half."

Jurisdictions in suburban Maryland and Virginia report that their courts take much less time to process criminal and civil cases than Superior Court. In Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax Counties, however, officials also are experiencing a boom in civil case filings, and delays in recent years have steadily grown.

In the District, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers say there are simply too many cases for Superior Court to handle expeditiously. And while additional resources have been deployed to handle the burgeoning criminal caseload, authorities say the civil side has gone begging for help.

The number of judges in the court--44--is set by federal statute and hasn't changed since the court was formed more than a decade ago, even though the number of cases demanding judicial attention has soared.

Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee added $2.8 million to the District's fiscal 1984 budget to pay for seven additional judges. That measure has not yet passed the full Senate and would have to be considered in a conference committee with the House, which passed a District budget without that money before it could be finally approved. In addition, the law governing the number of judges on the court would have to be changed before new judges could actually join the bench.

Meanwhile, the current judges presided over 1,345 criminal jury trials last year, an increase of 21 percent since 1978. They heard more than 8,500 guilty pleas, a record high, but not enough to conquer the growing glut of criminal cases.

One judge in the court's criminal division said his "stomach churns" when he takes the bench in the morning and looks out at the waiting faces in his courtroom, many of whom he knows will leave disappointed because their cases can't be heard.

Said Urbina: "The meter is ticking all the time."

Judges said they are pressed to move cases quickly through the system with little time to think before they make decisions.

"There's no way to keep up," said Judge Harriet R. Taylor. "Everybody wants you to make a decision whether right or wrong."

Misdemeanor judges typically have 400 cases pending on their calendars, felony judges 200 or more. In one recent five-week period, Judge Ronald P. Wertheim conducted 10 trials but also held 78 status hearings, 19 motions hearings, 86 sentencings, heard 146 pre-trial motions in court and another 25 in chambers, along with 26 hearings in other matters.

Most judges insist that the caseload crunch has not adversely affected the quality of justice; they say they just work harder. But Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr., articulating a view shared by some judges, said he "doubts whether every aspect of each case is fully considered" and wonders "if an attorney didn't have another moment or two more to make his case, whether he wouldn't tip the balance the other way."

One case filed recently with the D.C. Court of Appeals argued that a man convicted of robbery was denied his right to fully cross-examine a witness because the judge refused to call a recess so his lawyer could go to the bathroom.

The attorney, James Hipskind, said he couldn't concentrate on his questions without the recess. Judge Joseph M.F. Ryan Jr., known around the courthouse for his exceptional speed on the bench, accused Hipskind of stalling, according to the court record. Ryan, who has recently retired, declined requests to be interviewed about the case.

The defendant lost his appeal, but the appeals panel noted that "a five-minute recess would have imposed a minimal burden on the court." Next: The civil side