Unless you've spent a few years as an observer in the criminal courts of this city, you may not realize how hard it is to get sent to prison. In fact, unless the defendant is a repeat offender with a series of violent crimes on his record the courts will try very hard to find some alternative form of punishment -- usually probation with supervision, work, study or treatment requirements and sometimes an order for restitution for victims. As U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova put it, prisons have to deal with the most difficult of those who are convicted -- a hard- core population of repeat and dangerous offenders. Warning against premature release of such prisoners, Mr. diGenova stated "that city officials have failed for two years to identify the so-called 'soft-population' that could be released safely into the community under sentence-reduction programs."

The prosecutor's testimony was delivered to a D.C. Council committee now considering a number of bills aimed at reducing prison overcrowding. Because the D.C. Jail and the Lorton Reformatory have been running in excess of capacity, thousands of inmates have already been transferred to federal prisons with the District of Columbia paying for their care. Council Chairman David Clarke, and members John Ray and Nadine Winter want to make additional room available by releasing prisoners early. Mrs. Winter believes they should have their parole eligibility dates advanced if they have successfully completed an education program. Mr. Clarke offers legislation that would allow prisoners to petition their sentencing judges for a reduction in penalty -- a prospect that cannot please already overburdened judges. Mr. Ray's proposal, the most sensible temporary measure, would allow the mayor to declare an emergency if a prison exceeded its capacity for 30 consecutive days; then the Department of Corrections could make individual decisions to grant early release to inmates within 90 days of completing their sentences.

None of these proposals comes to grips with the real long-range problem of prison overcrowding. The public wants to be protected against violent, repeat offenders, and premature release can jeopardize public safety. Congress appears willing to make a substantial contribution toward the design and construction of a new facility, but the city government is dragging its feet, fooling around with temporary measures when a hard decision is needed. Of course, we'd all rather see the money spent on schools or medical care, but a new prison facility is an absolute necessity. The mayor's prison study commission, whose final report is due next month, should bite the bullet and pick a site.