Their day in court yesterday was a happy one for 76 persons in Prince George's County. They expected to spend last night in the county jail but were set free because of concern about the near-capacity crowd there.

With 503 inmates in a jail with a maximum capacity of 525, and facing a long holiday weekend with additional inmates expected, Director of Corrections Samuel Saxton rounded up 41 inmates awaiting trial on minor charges from shoplifting to marijuana possession and offered them the chance to plead guilty and go home.

An additional 35 persons charged with drunk driving and shoplifting, who had come to court expecting to plead guilty and serve between two and five days, as they had plea-bargained, were fined instead and then set free by Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia, who also presided over the other 41 cases.

"I go on the bench at 9:30, and I have 35 people who have made pretrial arrangements to go to jail, and in comes Mr. Saxton and says . . . 'There's no room,' " said Femia, who sentenced the drunk drivers and shoplifters instead to fines ranging from $175 to $260. "The message was, 'You can't put them in jail, there's no place to put them.' "

"I really take umbrage at it, but what am I going to do?" Femia asked. "We had an excess of humanity to be jailed and we had to find some alternative to sentencing."

The jail is under a federal court order -- imposed as part of a 1982 settlement of a lawsuit brought by inmates complaining of inhumane conditions at the facility -- to keep the population in the main building below 425. Two trailers, or "emergency housing units," can hold a total of 100 persons.

While 31 inmates were released Thursday, Saxton said, an equal number arrived, "which meant that if I kept operating with the same numbers coming through the door I would go over the court-ordered cap."

Saxton said he decided to act before that happened. "It's a heck of a lot better for us to be on top of these situations than for it to come down crashing around our heads," he said. "That's what riots are made out of."

The crowding resulted from a combination of the recent holidays from Christmas to Lincoln's birthday -- which meant fewer days in which court cases could be heard for those in jail awaiting trial -- a flu bug that has kept several county judges out of commission in recent days, and a power outage at the courthouse one day last week that delayed even more hearings, Saxton said.

Judge Femia said that for the 41 persons who were in the Upper Marlboro jail awaiting trial, "Most of them had done as much time or more than I would have given them anyway." He said several of those whose cases were picked by Saxton as candidates for release chose not to take the option, and remained in jail pending their trials, and that two others -- one man charged with embezzlement, and another accused of stealing and burning two cars -- appeared "too serious" to free.

"I guess that anytime you deal with those numbers, you're going to have somebody there [as a candidate for release] that should not be," Stratton said in response. "My feeling is this: that anybody that needs to come to jail, I have room for, I will make room for. Those people, the minor types that have been here awhile, they have gotten about what they were going to get anyway."