TALLAHASSEE, FLA. -- The crime was as gruesome as Manatee County Sheriff Charles Wells had seen in some time. An ex-convict walked into a local convenience store last August, kidnapped and raped the 19-year-old clerk, then dumped her slashed and bludgeoned body into a nearby river.

What angered Wells more was that the suspect had been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for armed robbery only a year earlier. But he was back on the streets in six months -- the result of a special "early release" program authorized by outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Martinez and approved by the Democratic-controlled state legislature to relieve overcrowding in Florida's prisons.

"The public should be up in arms about this," Wells said. "But this is typical in Florida. We have similar situations occurring every couple of weeks."

Starting in the early 1980s, lawmakers in this state launched one of the most aggressive anticrime and drug crackdowns in the nation, passing tough laws that abolished parole, stiffened sentences and mandated prison time for possession of even small amounts of cocaine and other illegal substances.

But today, that crackdown has produced a wholly unexpected result that may have national implications. Overwhelmed by a seemingly endless number of drug offenders pouring into its prisons, Florida's corrections department has been forced to slash the sentences of inmates at ever more rapid rates -- and it is releasing them in droves.

As a result, this conservative law-and-order state is now the nation's leader in the early release of convicted felons and punishment for crime is declining precipitously. Four years ago, inmates sentenced to Florida prisons served an average of 52 percent of their sentences. Today, the figure is 33 percent and dropping fast.

"It's a fiasco," said Anthony Fontana, chairman of the Florida Parole Commission, which last month was given new responsibility for supervising early releases.

In the eyes of some criminal justice experts, the story of Florida's early release program is a striking lesson in the perils of hard-line policies toward crime and drugs that fail to consider the long-term effects on the criminal justice system. The releases also have placed the state on the cutting edge of what is emerging as a nationwide problem as states struggle to cope with rapid increases in their prison populations, according to many policy analysts.

For the past decade, largely as a result of the drug crisis and stiffer sentencing laws, state prison populations have more than doubled, reaching 700,000 this year. This in turn has placed major new strains on state budgets as officials scramble to build and maintain new prisons, robbing funds from other services.

But now the crackdown on drugs and crime appears to be reaching its outer limits. While state governments spent a record $18.1 billion for operation and construction of prisons this year, 40 states remain under federal court orders restricting prison overcrowding. As a result, corrections officials are increasingly turning to new mechanisms to relieve the pressure: unilaterally granting "gain time" and "credit releases" that effectively shorten sentences and move inmates out the door.

"There's no doubt prison sentences are going to be reduced through a variety of mechanisms. Mathematically it has to happen because states can't afford these continued increases in prison budgets," said James Austin, executive director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a San Francisco-based research group that studies state prison populations.

But nowhere has the trend gone further and had more devastating consequences than here. "Florida is the worst situation for a state to be in," Austin said. "The whole criminal justice system has become somewhat fraudulent. People get sentences and no one is even serious about serving their time. . . . It's smoke and mirrors."

Although many lawmakers agree that the problems have been simmering for years, ironically they reached critical mass under the hard-line, law-and-order administration of Martinez, who lost his bid for reelection last month and was recently nominated by President Bush to become the new national drug control director.

From the moment he took office, his aides argue, Martinez recognized the problem and launched the biggest prison-building program in the state's history -- a $350 million effort that in the past four years has more than doubled the number of Floridians behind bars.

But not even the governor's strongest defenders argue that the new prisons were enough: The state has been thrown into a never-ending game of "catch-up," falling further and further behind.

"You think he {Martinez} likes this? You think he thinks this was a great thing to do?" asks Richard Dugger, Martinez's secretary of corrections who administered the early releases of inmates. "We didn't have any choice. We were building {prisons} as fast as we could. But we couldn't control the incoming traffic."

The problems began in 1972 when Michael Costello, sentenced to life in a Florida prison for the murder of an Army captain, filed a class-action lawsuit alleging crowding and poor medical treatment in the state penal system. The suit led to a court-imposed limit on the number of prisoners in state institutions and the appointment of a special federal "master" to ensure enforcement.

But despite the court limits, prison overcrowding had reached crisis proportions by the time Martinez took office in 1987. New inmates from a crack-induced explosion in drug offenses were being herded into makeshift tent prisons. Facing a new federal court ruling that could lead to mass releases all at once, Martinez called a special session of the state legislature and was granted authority to grant inmates "administrative gain time" -- essentially time off -- whenever the state's prisons were full.

When the program began, a state computer automatically granted most inmates five days off their sentences whenever state correctional officers learned the prisons were at 99 percent of capacity. "Then we went to 10 days, but it wouldn't generate enough bodies out the door," Dugger explained in a recent interview. "So finally, we went to 30 days."

By last year, the computers were taking one month off sentences every two weeks. When that was combined with other "gain time" already on the books, convicted felons were earning up to a year off their sentences after only a few months served. As many as 3,000 inmates were pouring out of the prisons every month.

State officials now estimate that in the nearly four years since the program began, more than 130,000 drug dealers, armed robbers, muggers and other convicted felons have been let out of Florida prisons early -- in many cases, years before their sentences were due to expire.

About one of every three of the "early releasees" -- more than 40,000 -- went on to commit new crimes, according to a computer analysis last year by the Orlando Sentinel.

"There is nothing but a recycle job here: They release them and we rearrest them and send them back, but not for long," said Wells, who serves as president of the Florida Sheriffs' Association.

The consequences of this new cycle of crime and violence have rippled through the state's criminal justice system and the courts, officials say. While states dump violent criminals back into the communities, county jails are swelling with rearrested "releasees." Manatee County's jail population has more than tripled in recent years. The state attorney general's office recently filed suit against 40 Florida counties alleging jail overcrowding while the sheriffs' association has filed its own suit against the state government to stop the early releases.

There have been a host of other paradoxes. The fastest-growing group of new prison admissions are drug offenders -- more than 16,000 this year. More than 40 percent of those, 6,800, were sentenced for drug possession, a felony in Florida. That means that at least some armed robbers and other violent felons are being freed to make room for nonviolent drug users, officials acknowledge.

At the same time, Martinez, who joined in the chorus of criticism of Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis for the Massachusetts prison furlough program during the 1988 campaign, has been plagued by repeated "horror stories" about early-release inmates who committed sensational crimes.

In July 1988, Bryan Keith Smith went on a headline-producing crime spree -- murdering a restaurant dishwasher, a motel clerk and a convenience store clerk in three armed robberies -- that started 12 days after he was released under the program.

Just a few months later, shortly after Willie Horton, who raped a Maryland woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, became front-page news during the presidential campaign, Florida papers played up the case of Charles Street. Convicted of attempted murder in 1980, Street gunned down two Miami police officers just 10 days after being released from a state prison, having served barely half his sentence.

The two cases were not exactly analogous. Horton, a convicted murderer, had been allowed to leave prison on a temporary basis despite a history of drug and disciplinary violations. Street also had a history of disciplinary violations, but with the gain time he had accumulated under state law, his term was up.

Nevertheless, last February, Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), then running in the Democratic primary for governor, sought to use the Street case against Martinez, saying he intended to make the murder suspect into Martinez's "Willie Horton." But the charge promptly backfired, in part because of the racial overtones: Street, like Horton, was black and Nelson was roundly criticized for preying on racial fears.

Over the past year, Martinez and state lawmakers repeatedly have tinkered with the program in response to public criticism. The list of violent offenders ineligible for gain time has been expanded. Instead of automatically granting time off to inmates through computers, the state parole commission has been asked to review each case individually -- a process that some state officials concede may be impossible.

"What proposals are there other than building prison beds?" asks Brian Ballard, Martinez's chief of staff. "Decriminalizing drug use? You don't throw your hands up in the air."