Tim Fitzharris, 43, has been around outcasts all his life. In his California boyhood, he lived on the grounds of San Quentin prison. His father was a prison official. Young Tim attended the San Quentin grammar school. Later his father was appointed warden of the Soledad state prison, and the family was there for seven years.

With this closeness to people who have committed crimes, Fitzharris went on to earn a doctorate in criminology at the University of California at Berkeley. He became a consultant to the California legislative assembly's criminal justice committee. He then worked as the executive director of the California Probation, Parole and Correctional Association.

During this time, Fitzharris earned a reputation for being an official who saw that crime was not a problem only when a person broke the law but that it often began much further back: when society broke faith with the person.

Fitzharris now works at one of those breaking points. He serves outcast children whose needs include foster care, protective services and adults to care about them. He is currently the director of the California Association of Services for Children, a group that represents 60 social service agencies. Fitzharris remains a criminologist. His goal is still crime deterrence. The difference now is that he believes prisons are the last line of defense, while child protective services are the first and best line.

Fitzharris tells of growing up in San Quentin and Soledad: "I saw the destroyed lives in front of me. It was hard to turn them around. Being a criminologist doesn't mean that I have to work in prisons or have a parole caseload. It can mean preventing criminal careers. If we are going to worry about the crime problem, we have to look at where it develops in childhood and adolescence. It is cheaper to work at this end than the other."

Fitzharris is uncomfortable using words such as "cheaper," as though saving lives can be justified only by saving dollars. If forced, though, he will use the word -- as when he told the House Budget Committee last month, "the investment (in foster care) will be much cheaper in the long run than institutional costs and the costs associated with criminal careers."

Any number of reports -- from the General Accounting Office's to those of the American Justice Institute -- document this. The institute estimates that locking up juveniles costs $61 a day, while group-home alternatives average between $14 and $17 a day. The Children's Defense Fund reports that for every dollar put into preschool education, $3 are saved in later costs for special education. An outlay of $9 for food for a poor child avoids $1,400 in later hospital costs for treating malnutrition.

Fitzharris sees the Reagan administration cutbacks in child-welfare programs as reckless invitations to immense debts that are already coming due. At the Washington conference of the Child Welfare League of America in mid-March, he compared the decrease in federal money with the increase in the need in the states. The changing nature of foster care makes the point: a "San Francisco agency reported that five years ago only 10 percent of its children had prior mental-health hospitalizations; now better than 60 percent have. The agency also reported that 10 years ago, 97 percent of the children would go home -- both during the placement and at termination; now only 50 percent of the children have families that are 'accessible.'

Fitzharris is an illusion shatterer. His criminology counters the current building binge in prisons and jails. His argument is sound: by abandoning children who need services such as foster care, we are sentencing them early to the prison of neglect. They are victims whose limited options mean they are more likely to grow up to be victimizers.

Adult prison confinement, ironically, is about the only area in which money is currently being lavished on the poor and minorities. In many states, the yearly cost of incarceration is as high as $25,000. In those cells are mostly the poor and minorities. The National Coalition for Jail Reform reports that 58 percent of the 500,000 women in jail last year had lived on less than $3,000 a year and 92 percent on less than $10,000 a year.

Since 1981, $200 million has been cut by the Reagan administration from the Title XX social services block grant, the major child protective services program. Fitzharris believes there is no worse time for the money to be taken away. At the same time, there is no better time for the country to have a criminologist like Fitzharris. Few are more qualified to say that criminals don't happen, they are developed.