Chief Justice Warren Burger, who did the most to put together a recent tour of Scandinavian prisons, probably learned the least from it. For him it was less a learning experience than a teaching one.

Burger has been visiting prisons--in the United States, in Scandinavia, in the Soviet Union, in the People's Republic of China--for a quarter of a century, trying to find ideas and approaches that might help to make American prisons less self-defeating.

The problem: how to evaluate the findings, how to make them a part of the national debate over American corrections--indeed, how to get the debate going. That's why his team included Norman Carlson, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, civil liberties and the administration of justice; State Sen. Karl Snow of Utah, whose committee oversees state prisons; J. Albert Woll, general counsel of the AFL-CIO, and representatives of two major businesses--National Can Corp. and the Weyerhaeuser Corp.

There is no doubt that members of the tour learned a good deal about a different approach to criminal justice. The question is whether any of it has relevance, theoretical, political or practical, for the American system.

Among the more impressive features of the Scandinavian system, for instance, are the generally short terms served in relatively small prisons. The positives that flow from this combination are clear: prisons are less crowded and less brutal; convicts are less likely to leave prison more hardened than when they entered; inmates are less likely to run the prisons, as they often do here.

The living conditions in Scandinavian prisons--private rooms, conjugal visits, frequent furloughs, good food--are better than many American prisoners enjoyed in their own homes. Scandinavian inmates virtually always work, often producing--for market-adjusted pay--products for public consumption. (The Chinese, says Burger, go further: instead of installing factories in prisons, they build prisons by putting fences around factories.)

How do you persuade Americans to copy this example, in the face of opposition from unions and private businesses, unless you can also persuade them that there is a practical payoff, in, for instance, reduced recidivism?

But there is little evidence that these more- costly practices substantially reduce recidivism, and, therefore, it might be difficult to sell such reforms to Americans.

The Scandinavians, I am convinced, do these things not for their practical effects but because they believe them the right thing to do.

They may be the right thing to do here as well--even though the prospective payoff is more problematical here than in the vastly more homogeneous societies of Scandinavia, which have few of the problems of race, class and caste that infect the American society. The hope of rehabilitation comes harder here, where many criminals have never been habilitated to begin with.

The Burger team will get together later to evaluate its findings and weigh their relevance for America. But it is safe to say that, while members of the team are unconvinced that the Scandinavian approach turns criminals into better citizens, they are persuaded that the American approach routinely makes them worse.

Americans know this already. But they are afraid to change, particularly when the changes would strike the people--and maybe a good many inmates as well--as "coddling" criminals.