Starting at dusk, surveillance officer Jerry Robinson whipped his gold, state-issue Dodge through the city's southern outskirts. Stopping at working-class clapboards, bleak housing projects and one glass-walled showplace, he talked to felons serving a new kind of sentence.

Emmanuel Love Maddox IV had pleaded guilty to beating a child; he says it was a spanking. His cutoff jeans showing legs like tree trunks, Maddox let Robinson into a cheerful little living room where a cousin's children romped and a TV set played. He had just finished a day's work as a painting subcontractor.

David Webb had shot at another driver in a traffic dispute. Robinson found Webb, now working as a roofer, watching television with assorted family members and a powder-puff Pekingese dog.

Carol Norton, 22 and eight months pregnant, had forged about $4,000 in bad checks, dropping out of school "to live the fast life, I guess." She was in her bathrobe and pajamas ready for bed, her family asleep, by the time Robinson arrived at their sprawling modern home with spotlights on the landscaped lawn. Until recently, she had worked as a temporary secretary.

Robinson's caseload totals 25 people -- drug abusers, shoplifters, thieves, forgers and felony drunk drivers -- in a fledgling state program known as intensive probation supervision. Their alternatives were up to five years each in prison.

A tougher variant of traditional probation, often likened to "house arrest," it is a hot item in corrections.

Prisons, expensive and crowded, are increasingly reserved for habitual criminals and the very violent. The proportion of the U.S. population in prison is at an all-time high -- doubling in the last 10 years while the nation's population grew only 10.5 percent. One in 520 Americans was in prison in 1984, and yet most of those convicted of crimes live among us. Beleaguered probation agencies are charged with supervising two-thirds of all the nation's convicted offenders, many of them felons.

Many Americans regard the revolving door as a symbol of the failure of the criminal justice system. A Rand Corp. study concluded earlier this year that more than half of the adult male felons on probation in California were convicted of new crimes within 40 months and that one-third of those were returned to probation.

The study recommended intensive supervision as the most realistic way to deal with this "serious threat to public safety." Other criminal justice experts have criticized the study as alarmist and say the situation is worse in California than in most other states.

But professionals on the front lines, sometimes aided by elected officials, are turning increasingly to programs that give judges options besides prison and traditional "street" probation, where supervision is often lax to nonexistent.

Georgia's answer costs about one-fifth as much as the care and feeding of a prisoner -- $5.20 a day against about $26 -- and it is paid for entirely by fees charged all of the state's probationers.

Robinson's probationers are subject to curfews, at least five unannounced visits a week at home or at work and spot urinalyses or breath tests to detect drugs or alcohol. He and his partner can return a probationer to prison without red tape. So far, none of his special probationers -- and none of Georgia's -- has committed a violent crime during or after participating in the program.

At least eight states are trying intensive supervision in some form, diverting up to one-fifth of their convicted felons from prison. But many specialists say that Georgia's is the toughest and most ambitious program.

"I believe this program is the future of American corrections," said Alan Adams, Robinson's partner.

Alan M. Schuman, social services director for the District of Columbia's Superior Court and vice president of the National Association of Probation Executives, says judges rely increasingly on probation officials to rank criminals in order of their risk to society. This point classification system is based on an offender's criminal record, work history, family background, education and circumstances surrounding the crime -- alcoholism or drug abuse, for example. The lower the risk, the greater their chances of avoiding prison.

Even crime victims are not necessarily opposed to reasonable alternatives to prison, said John Stein of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA). In several states that require victims' input before a plea bargain, Stein said, authorities have been surprised "that victims are not much more vengeful than they are." 'A Continuum of Options'

Some say it is a mistake, however, to put all the bad eggs in one basket. In Georgia, intensive supervision is one on a menu of "calibrated" sentencing choices which, along with an unusual and controversial parole policy, are designed to reduce prison crowding. Several other states have sent officials to study the state's programs.

"The idea is to have a continuum of options and to be able to move people back and forth within them," said Vince Fallin, deputy commissioner of the probation division of the state Department of Corrections.

Georgia, founded in 1733 by the British, was originally conceived as perhaps the earliest U.S. prison alternative, a colony where those imprisoned for debt in England, and other British "gentlemen of decayed circumstances," could get a new start, historians say. Still, the state, which later acquired a reputation as the chain-gang capital of the United States, seems an unlikely a haven for what appear to be progressive notions of criminal justice. State officials point out that Georgia still imprisons its criminals at one of the highest rates in the country.

The point, they say, is that they have come to grips with a harsh political truth that many officials elsewhere have ducked: The state and the public have admitted to each other that they are unwilling to spend what it would take to build enough prisons for all the criminals.

Each year, 13,000 Georgia convicts are sentenced to serve time. The state prison capacity is fewer than 16,000 beds. 'We Just Have to Face Reality'

"If we continue at our present rate, by the year 2020 about half the population of Georgia will be under some kind of criminal sentence," said James T. Morris, member of the state parole board. "We just have to face reality."

Georgia was helped to confront the problem in the early 1970s when federal courts threatened to take over the corrections system on grounds of unconstitutional crowding. Eight state corrections systems have been taken over by the courts; 25 others are partially controlled by the courts.

In the court-driven push to build prisons, however, Georgia officials found that funds were being diverted from other worthy causes.

"Some of the money needed to improve Georgia's educational system has been going to prison construction," said Larry Anderson, who coordinates the state's alternative-sentencing programs. "People are beginning to realize there are a lot of people going to prison who don't need to."

Georgia's "calibrated" sentencing options include shock incarceration, a 90-day dose of prison life for young male felons who have never served time in an adult prison. There are also diversion centers that confine nonviolent offenders without drug or alcohol problems in group residential settings where they work full time and use their earnings to pay for room and board, court fines and restitution to victims.

The growing intensive supervision program can accommodate about 1,400 offenders annually for six to 12 months each. Participants are required to perform at least 132 hours of community service (building homes for the elderly, hospital service, etc.), make restitution and pay fines and a probation fee.

Its mission is to keep people out of prison without creating a community crime wave -- and so far, according to the National Institute of Justice and other authorities, the mission is being accomplished. Preliminary figures indicate that its participants are committing new crimes at a slightly higher rate than that for standard probationers and at a much lower rate than that for the prison population, but officials say the program is too new for a valid statistic on repeat crime.

They cite instead the program's 78 percent success rate, compared with the original goal of 70 percent. Successful probationers meet the terms of the sentence and are returned to regular probation or discharged.

In basic street probation, about 540 officers supervise 100,000 probationers, contacting them from once a month to once a week, depending on a probationer's risk ranking. The cost is 75 cents a day for each offender.

The intensive program has 33 extensively trained two-man surveillance teams, and they get to know their probationers more intimately than some of the officers can tolerate, officials said. Officers are often reluctant to switch from regular probation to the new field, but those who do tend to be idealistic and highly motivated.

"This is the best probation job I've had in 10 years with the department," Adams said. "We get involved with each case on a very individual basis -- talk with them about everything from money to sex problems . . . . You start out getting the same crap you get on a regular probation program, but eventually the communication gets fairly close."

Adams said he never used to take his work home. Now he gives probationers his home telephone number. But, he added, "this leads to a lot of stress and burnout. I try hard to keep us from falling into that." 'I Try to Be More of a Friend'

"I try to be more of a friend, a counselor, try to get them to open up to me," said Robinson, 29, who has a degree in criminal justice and interned as a sheriff in Milwaukee County, Wis., before coming to Atlanta less than two years ago. "But they don't get any breaks because I'm friendly to them. You have to be somewhat manipulative, I guess, but I think I'm able to strike a balance with most of them."

A case in point is Alex, a young burglar working as a supermarket clerk. He had been violating curfew, hanging out with a bad crowd, smoking marijuana, lying, Robinson said, and had watered his urine sample to prevent an accurate analysis.

"I sat here one night and talked to that boy for an hour, from my heart," Robinson said angrily just after he visited Alex at home. "Like he says, he's got us all figured out. We're just threatening, but we won't really do anything to him . . . . It's over; he's written off. He's going back."

Alex, who has a pregnant wife and a baby daughter, disappeared a short time later and is being sought as a fugitive.

"I'm not going to get cynical," said Robinson, who at $17,000 a year earns less than some of his probationers. "There are a lot of people who do make it, make changes. I think my judgment is getting more keen."

In its first 18 months, the program's probationers produced $1,269,749 in family support, taxes, restitution, fines and fees and performed 55,674 hours of community service, according to a 1984 study approved by corrections professionals around the country.

(Of all the restrictions intensive supervision requires, the probationers on Robinson's visitation list grumbled loudest about community service, having to get up on Saturday and spend their weekends working for free.)

The study also noted that the program had a disproportionately high percentage of whites, 72 percent, and recommended a better balance. "There is some built-in bias," one official said. "White people are more able to afford lawyers."

The program's initial success, by all accounts, is due in large part to corrections officials' energetic efforts to "sell" it in speeches and chats with judges, attorneys, families of offenders and victims.

Its supporters are sensitive to charges that probation is "a slap on the wrist," making it politically unpalatable to judges. Accordingly, their sales pitches emphasize surveillance and control rather than rehabilitation. 'You Vary Your Message'

Said one corrections official, "You vary your message depending on the audience. To the hard-nosed public, you say, give us that person and we'll punish 'em. But our hidden agenda is give us the body, and we'll try to treat it."

As the public's mood has grown more punitive, several states have altered their sentencing policies, most often from discretionary to mandatory sentencing. Federal prisons have eliminated parole.

At the same time, many states have had to adopt emergency release laws to deal with prison crowding that their tougher policies have caused.

Georgia, in its most controversial criminal justice policy, recently authorized the parole board to release inmates, regardless of their sentences, based on the number of new prisoners coming in the front door. The parole board, whose members are appointed rather than elected, can reduce a 10-year sentence to as little as four months, officials said.

The board uses a "parole grid," a standardized formula that weighs the severity of the crime against the inmate's chances for success in society. It "allows us to make sure there's always room for the most dangerous offenders . . . . We're practicing 'selective incapacitation,' " said board member Morris, a former city police officer known as the "father" of the parole grid system.

The parole board, the governor and some other officials have taken considerable political heat about the grid from district attorneys, judges and the public. This has been aggravated by several crimes, including murder, allegedly committed by parolees released under the system. The alternative, officials say, was mass release of convicts.

"The grid yields a 90 percent certainty whether a person will commit a crime within five years," Morris said. But further research is needed before it can predict the type of crime -- violent or nonviolent.

The grid's 99.2 percent success rate to date would be "quite acceptable in most businesses," he added. "In ours, nothing less than 100 percent is acceptable. We could get that by denying parole to everybody."

Parole board Chairman Michael Wing denounced a "lack of courage on the part of decision makers" in some states that have let their prison systems "pirouette into the arms of the courts."

"Here in Georgia," Wing said, "we've taken our lumps in terms of our actions not being popular. But we can sleep at night because we've been responsible."