The judge who sentenced Richard Speck to a minimum of 400 years in prison for murdering eight student nurses in 1966 could hardly have done more to ensure that Speck stayed behind bars for the rest of his life.

Speck was given eight consecutive terms of 50 to 150 years for each fatal stabbing or strangling, although the defense had asked for concurrent sentences so that he would have "some hope of rehabilitation."

Illinois Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Fitzgerald, acting after Speck's original death sentence had been voided, was determined to show no leniency. Life, he said, should mean life.

Nevertheless, Speck's case has come up for automatic parole review six times, stirring particular concern each time about how the criminal justice system treats violent offenders and recently because, for the first time, he reportedly pleaded for release. His case also has refueled debate about the purpose of parole.

Yesterday, the 10-member Illinois Prisoner Review Board, appointed by the governor and headed by a former police chief, unanimously ruled against Speck, who has spent the last 20 years at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Ill. The board did not comment on the decision and set another hearing for Speck in September 1990.

The Speck case is a relic in criminal justice history.

A high school dropout and drifter, Speck was 24 on July 13, 1966, when he broke into a Chicago dormitory housing six student nurses and bound them and two others who entered the house. He systematically murdered them, as a ninth nurse survived by rolling, undetected, under a bed.

Speck was sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court struck down capital punishment laws in 1972. Four years later, the high court signaled states that they could reinstate capital punishment under certain circumstances, but Speck's sentence had been irrevocably thrown out, and he was resentenced to prison.

The system under which Speck is eligible for parole has been abolished in several states, including Illinois. Unless Congress acts to halt it, parole also will be abolished in the federal prison system in November. Instead, strict prison terms will be imposed under guidelines established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Speck was sentenced under Illinois' old "indeterminate" procedure whereby convicts soon became automatically eligible for parole, used as a means of promoting rehabilitation and highlighting sentencing disparities. In murder cases, even if the sentence was 50 to 150 years, a case was reviewed after 11 years and thereafter at least every three years.

In 1978, Illinois abolished parole, and a determinate-sentencing system was introduced. A convict's release date was firmly tied to the sentence.

Assuming good behavior, the prisoner now receives a day's freedom for each day of his sentence. Had Speck received the same sentence under the new guidelines, he would have had to serve a minimum of 200 years.

Abolition of parole in Illinois and elsewhere followed mounting concern about crime rates and reconvictions of paroled offenders. Courts also had begun paying increased attention to crime victims and to the idea that rehabilitation of a convict is almost impossible to assess.

According to Justice Department figures released in 1983, the average murder sentence nationwide was 281 months and the average time in prison 89.9 months. Of convicted murderers released from prison, 6 percent were rearrested for murder. New department figures show that one of every 12 murder convicts on death row had been convicted of murder previously.

"People in this state were getting life for murder, and then they were out again in nine or 10 years," said Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley, whose responsibilities include the Speck case. "The system became a mockery."

Daley's study of 30 convicted murderers released in Illinois in 1983 revealed that their average time served was 10 years. No study has been made of reconviction rates in the state but, Daley said, "We were and still are spending a lot of our time putting repeat offenders back in the system."

As a result of Daley's study, Illinois tightened rules governing the Prisoner Review Board. Before 1983, decisions could be made by only three members. Now, all 10 members, each of whom must have five years experience in criminal justice, must approve decisions.

Abolition of parole was promoted initially in the early 1970s by persons concerned about what they termed inconsistent and unfair decisions by parole review boards. Determinate sentencing along strict guidelines, they argued, would be more honest and fair.

Critics argued that determinate sentencing and abolition of parole would result in stiffer sentences generally and more prison overcrowding. Sentencing commission sources have estimated that abolishing parole in the federal prison system would increase its population by 8 percent in the first year.

"There is now a disenchantment with determinate sentencing among" those who championed it "because it is being used as an excuse to put everyone inside for longer," said Douglas McDonald, a sociologist with the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

Alvin Bronstein, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "The liberal reforms we were advocating fell flat when we realized that we had gotten a bigger monster in place of the old problem."

Few persons on either side of the political spectrum, however, have said they believe mass murderers such as Speck should ever be freed.

Quirks of history and different approaches to criminal justice have resulted in great variation in states' treatment of mass murderers.

At one extreme, in California and Illinois, where there are many convicts on death row, prisoners such as Charles Manson and Speck are eligible to seek parole. At another extreme, Kansas has no death penalty and paroles some murderers serving life terms.

In general, even states without parole have toughened up on their most violent offenders. Several have introduced exceptions for those who committed particularly horrific murders, including denial of a right to early release.

"In practice, these people will never be released. Their crimes are just too horrific," said Alan James Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and coauthor of "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace."

Only one mass murderer -- Caril Ann Fugate -- has been granted early release in modern times, according to Fox. She was convicted of murder in 1958 after a midwestern spree with Charles Starkweather that resulted in 11 killings and Starkweather's execution in 1959. Imprisoned at age 14, Fugate was paroled in 1976 after a television documentary depicting her as reformed.

"Speck will never be released until he has the mass of public support behind him. In his case, there is no chance of that ever happening," Fox said.