Convicted criminals can avoid paying court-ordered restitution for their crimes by declaring bankruptcy, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The court said restitution payments constitute "debts" that are "dischargeable" under federal bankruptcy law -- in other words, that those declaring bankruptcy can be excused from paying them.

In other action yesterday, the court:

Agreed to decide whether a Michigan man's mandatory sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for possession of more than a pound of cocaine constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."

The use of lengthy mandatory sentences has become a popular tool in the war on drugs, but the Michigan man, Ronald Harmelin, told the court that Michigan's law is the harshest in the nation.

Broadened constitutional protections against double jeopardy, ruling in Grady v. Corbin that a New York drunk driver who pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in a fatal accident could not later be prosecuted for homicide. The court, ruling 5-4, said the homicide prosecution would constitute double jeopardy because the government would be proving conduct -- in this case, driving while intoxicated and failing to keep to the right of the median -- for which the driver had already been prosecuted.

In a stinging dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia attacked the ruling as "radically out of line with our double jeopardy jurisprudence" and said its "practical effect" would be to force prosecutors to try all charges arising from a single event together, "a requirement we have hitherto steadfastly refused to impose."

The bankruptcy case, Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare v. Davenport, involved a Pennsylvania couple, Edward and Debora Davenport, who pleaded guilty to welfare fraud. The Davenports were collecting public assistance benefits and food stamps while Edward Davenport was also receiving disability payments.

The Davenports were sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay $2,072.40 each, with monthly payments of $208 each. The Davenports made none of the payments but instead filed for bankruptcy, listing the restitution obligation as one of their debts.

In a 1986 decision, the Supreme Court said restitution payments were not dischargeable under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code -- in which debtors turn over their assets to a trustee who uses whatever money there is to pay off creditors -- because of a provision that specifically excludes fines and penalties.

The Davenports, however, filed for bankruptcy under a different part of the code, Chapter 13, under which debtors file a plan with the court in which they promise to make regular payments to their creditors -- generally a fraction of the total amount they owe -- and are then free to make a fresh start. Chapter 13 does not contain a similar exclusion for fines and penalties.

In yesterday's ruling, the court, in a 7-2 decision by Justice Thurgood Marshall, said Congress "could well have concluded that . . . a debtor's interest in full and complete release of his obligations outweighs society's interest in collecting or enforcing a restitution obligation outside the agreement reached in the Chapter 13 plan."

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said "there is no suggestion in the Bankruptcy Code that it may be used as a shield to protect a criminal from punishment for his crime."

Blackmun warned of the decision's "adverse effect" on sentencing decisions. "The judgment of sentencing courts and legislators that rehabilitation is the most effective form of punishment will be tempered by the knowledge that convicted criminals easily may avoid a sentence requiring restitution merely by obtaining a Chapter 13 discharge," he said.

The Davenports' lawyer, David A. Searles of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said his clients "are not getting away with anything" because they could not have afforded to pay the restitution in any case. He noted that at the time, the couple's total monthly income was $1,064 and their expenses for food, clothing and shelter were $1,037, while they owed $416 each month for restitution alone.