The Democratic-controlled House yesterday came within 10 votes of overturning the District's controversial early prisoner release program after a surprisingly effective assault by Republicans who contended that dangerous criminals were being released.

The House, which twice before has overturned D.C. legislation since the advent of home rule 12 years ago, voted 210 to 200 to block the Republican effort, but not before Democratic leaders twisted arms to avert widespread defection by other Democrats.

The District's persistent problems in handling a growing prison population have prompted Congress in the past year to step up its criticism and to take a direct hand in shaping the city's corrections system.

Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) said during floor debate yesterday that congressional intervention, along with court-ordered prison population limits and the Federal Bureau of Prisons' refusal to accept additional D.C. prisoners, has left the District virtually hamstrung in dealing with the crowding problem.

Recision of the early release program would have made it "impossible for the District to manage its prison population," Fauntroy said.

Reps. Stan Parris and Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), who led the effort to overturn the D.C. program, said the closeness of the vote would force the city to tighten regulations for releasing prisoners and also provided a clear signal of the growing opposition to statehood for the District.

"That vote signifies that the statehood bill is in deep trouble," Bliley said. "If they could only get a 10-vote margin on a procedural vote . . . I would think they'd have trouble on a substantial vote."

Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the District of Columbia Committee, disputed Bliley's claim, saying, "I don't want to give {the vote} that kind of significance."

But Democratic leaders have conceded privately that prospects are bleak for passage this year of a D.C. statehood bill introduced by Fauntroy.

One high-ranking Democrat, who declined to be identified, said yesterday, "Statehood doesn't have a prayer here."

Fauntroy said he has not given up hope that the House will act on statehood legislation this year, but conceded that budget and appropriations issues could push it out of the way.

As for yesterday's close vote, he noted that 45 House members who sided with the city have been "undecided" on the statehood issue.

"I was encouraged that a sufficient number of members saw through the effort of Mr. Parris to offer them an easy law-and-order vote on the District," he said.

At issue yesterday was the District's 3 1/2-month effort to comply with court orders to reduce prison overcrowding by shaving as many as 90 days from the prison terms of inmates who were not convicted of serious violent crimes.

Since July 3, when Mayor Marion Barry declared a prison emergency, about 870 prisoners have been freed under the program.

Parris and other critics have alleged that the District violated its commitment to release prisoners convicted only of nonviolent crimes, that the program was hastily prepared and sloppily managed, and that any easing of crowding would be only temporary.

According to an analysis by Parris' staff of 112 of the inmates released under the program, 80 percent were "dangerous criminals" as defined by the D.C. criminal code; 32 percent had been serving mandatory minimum sentences that should not have been reduced; 14 percent were arrested again within a month of their release, and 92 percent had more than two prior convictions, including some with as many as 15.

"What we are dealing with today is not a question of home rule, it is a question of public safety," Bliley said.

However, in a letter this week to a House District subcommittee chairman, Barry insisted that the District has not granted early releases to persons who committed violent felonies as defined by the new law, including homicide, rape, other serious sex offenses, assault with intent to rob, extortion, kidnaping, assault with a dangerous weapon or armed robbery.

"Our analysis of cases that paralleled ones identified by {Parris} showed that the District released 20 inmates who were serving time for robbery," Barry said. "None of these cases involved the use of a dangerous weapon. Similarly, the District examined records for 12 early releases who were serving time on assault charges. These were all either simple assault or assault without the use of a weapon . . . . Inmates were released an average of 19 days early."

The D.C. Council during the summer approved legislation, subject to congressional review, that would give the District permanent authority to order the early release of inmates.

Last week, the District Committee voted 8 to 0, at a meeting boycotted by the Republicans, to reject Parris' resolution to overturn the legislation.

Yesterday Parris, invoking a seldom-used rule under the D.C. home rule law, requested that the House pull the resolution from committee and bring it to a vote on the floor. The same maneuver was used by Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) in 1981 in persuading the House to rescind the District's sexual assault reform act.

Dellums, who angrily described Parris' action as an affront to him and the committee, moved to table Parris' resolution. Thirty-four Democrats broke ranks to vote with 166 Republicans to oppose Dellum's motion.

Many of them were concerned that the early release law might result in more crimes, according to a Democratic leader.

The vote to table was so close that Democratic Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) scrambled, with no time remaining on the electronic tote board, to persuade a half dozen or more Democrats to change their vote in favor of the motion.

"When that clock ran out, I was not feeling very good," confessed a District official who monitored the tight floor action.

Congress has taken an active role dealing with the city's prison problems in recent years, appropriating funds for special educational programs, forcing the District to undertake the construction of a new prison near the D.C. Jail and, most recently, temporarily halting construction of that facility while alternate sites are considered.