On a city-issue desk in an ordinary office inside Community Corrections Center No. 4 stands a makeshift filing system. Pale green handwritten dividers are marked with times: 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m.

When an inmate at the halfway house on New York Avenue NE leaves for work or a drug test or an appointment, his file is placed behind a divider. When the inmate returns, his file is removed and placed on another part of the desk.

A steady dwindling of files as curfew approaches means all is well. But when the deadline passes and a lone file remains, the staff of the District's largest halfway house knows one of its 220 residents is missing.

There are many reasons -- some of them lawful -- that an inmate might not return. It is the ones who run away who now are troubling District residents and inspiring an energetic attempt by D.C. criminal justice leaders to overhaul the city's ailing halfway house system.

Heightened interest in halfway house operations has been driven largely by the frustration with the number of residents who have absconded, and several notorious crimes they later committed. During the first six months of the year, D.C. grand juries indicted 396 people on escape charges, the vast majority from halfway houses.

But the problems with the District's halfway house system extend beyond walk-aways, to issues such as access to job counseling and drug treatment, according to advocates and corrections administrators. The difficulties are compounded by the varied population of the halfway house system, which includes pretrial defendants, prisoners preparing for parole and people convicted of misdemeanors.

Meanwhile, D.C. regulations do not always spell out how the city's justice system should respond to escapees and violations of halfway house rules, leading to inconsistent punishment of violators.

An archaic system of record-keeping and data exchange, now being upgraded, also frustrates players on all sides of the debate. Earlier this year, it typically took authorities seven days to issue an arrest warrant when someone walked away.

Now, police are notified of an escape within hours. An arrest warrant on a new charge is usually obtained within 24 hours. The D.C. Department of Corrections, which operates Center No. 4, also has increased its staff, from supervisors to counselors to nurses.

At a two-day retreat this week on Maryland's Solomons Island, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jailers, judges and police will gather for an intensive look at a topic they have been debating for months.

The retreat will be led by the National Institute of Corrections, which is studying the D.C. system -- current capacity 561, current population 520 -- for the Justice Department. The sessions present a chance to discuss longer-term improvements in policies and attitudes.

"Some very hard questions will be put on the table," said Odie Washington, the city's corrections director. "What will be the role of various entities in halfway houses? Who will decide placement in halfway houses? Will that continue to be the exclusive province of the courts, or will agencies have input?"

After months of private meetings, advocates on all sides agree that the problems with the halfway house system cannot be solved by admonishments to lock the hoodlums up.

They aren't all hoodlums, for one thing. Hundreds of men and women who cycle through the District's six halfway houses each year are charged with crimes but have not been convicted. Some never will be found guilty of a serious offense.

In 1998, for example, 1,493 felony cases, about 15 percent of all pending felonies, were dismissed in D.C. Superior Court, according to court records. In some situations, the dismissals follow a defendant's conviction or guilty plea in another case. In others, evidence comes up short, and the suspect goes free.

Nor does the law allow judges to put a suspect behind bars simply because the judge thinks the community would be well served by pretrial detention. A suspect's dangerousness and the risk that he will not return to court are the only two factors a judge may consider.

What about keeping defendants behind bars by setting a high bond, as some politicians have suggested? Any bond set so high that a defendant could not reasonably meet it would be considered illegal and unfair, and it would favor prosperous suspects over poor ones.

Even most defendants charged with violent crimes cannot be held indefinitely. The law gives the U.S. attorney's office 100 days after an arrest to bring the suspect to trial, with one 20-day extension permitted for good cause.

If the suspect -- on charges other than first-degree murder or assault with intent to kill while armed -- has not been indicted or the trial begun before the deadline, the defendant must be released to a halfway house or into the community. U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis asked the D.C. Council last month to change the law to allow longer detention at a judge's discretion.

In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), Lewis cited cases in which more than 100 days were needed to prepare for trial because of delays in DNA analysis, problems with traumatized witnesses, heavy caseloads for prosecutors and defense lawyers, and last-minute plea negotiations.

Lewis said the change she is seeking would put fewer violent defendants back on the street.

"I have a real problem with dangerous and violent offenders being in halfway houses," said Mary A. Incontro, chief of the Superior Court division of the U.S. attorney's office. "The halfway houses have not been funded, staffed or managed to deal with violent offenders."

Washington agrees. When he took charge of corrections in the spring as the furor over escapes from halfway houses was building, he wondered why his agency took the heat when it had no influence over who was placed in its custody or what happened when they left for the day.

"I'm just the innkeeper," said Washington, who believes corrections personnel should assess risk before pretrial defendants are assigned to a halfway house. "Who has the responsibility? Clearly the judges do. That's where the District should focus the attention."

Community Corrections Center No. 4 is the city's busiest halfway house, with 220 beds, and the only one run directly by the District. The five others are run by private contractors. Washington, a former head of the Illinois prison system, is overseeing an expansion of monitoring, staff, training and services.

Only 10 of 63 staff members now employed at the New York Avenue facility were on the job two years ago. Thirty-nine have started since April. In recent months, the house has added two caseworkers, two job counselors, a schoolteacher, a substance abuse counselor and a nurse.

D.C. Corrections Department statistics suggest that fewer halfway house residents are walking away this year -- 449 in the first five months of 1999, compared with 635 in the same period in 1998. Eighty of the 1999 escapees -- 17.8 percent -- remained at large in June, the agency said.

Opportunities for walking away are many, since inmates are permitted to make their own way to such activities as work, court, counseling and drug testing.

"We can't follow them everywhere they go," said Shellie Stubbs, a D.C. corrections administrator. "The people who are here haven't made it in the community. Their mothers could not do [for them]. The church could not do. The judges could not make them do. They put it on corrections to do."

Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said he will propose emergency legislation today to require judges to detain until trial all suspects accused of an expanded list of violent crimes, including second-degree murder, rape and armed robbery. He also favors allowing judges to impose bonds through bail-bondsmen.

"With the summer months coming on and crime getting out of control, I believe we have to do this on an emergency basis. It would prevent judges from placing some dangerous defendants in halfway houses," Orange said. "The bondsman could come in to make sure the defendant stays out of trouble and goes to trial."

Not all cases initially classified as escapes turn out to be escapes. When it comes to identifying absconders and notifying law enforcement, corrections officials acknowledge the handicap of what Washington calls "an old, antiquated, manual" system that relies on telephones and paper.

Some halfway house defendants who missed curfew did so because they were delayed at court, were shifted to another halfway house or were freed after pleading guilty or having the charges against them dropped. Others were admitted to a hospital or arrested on a new charge.

The criminal justice group that will meet on Solomons Island is pursuing several ideas. Among them: establishing rules to improve the organization of the halfway house system and the services it provides.

John A. Carver III, director of the federal offender supervision agency and the group's chairman, said he wants "a fair system with predictable consequences that you can understand."

Jo-Ann Wallace, director of the D.C. Public Defender Service, agreed, adding that she is seeking "a process that has rules that are applied fairly and consistently and humanely. These are real people with real problems that need to be addressed."

CAPTION: An officer counts heads during a walk through a barracks at Community Corrections Center No. 4 in Northeast Washington.

CAPTION: Inmate Tyrone Richardson watches an administrator check his paperwork.