At a time when communities and neighborhoods all across the nation are trying to prevent crime before it happens, prison officials must do their part by re-examining their guidelines for releasing prisoners on furlough programs.

Recent incidents illustrate the need for such scrutiny, particularly because with overcrowded prisons nationwide, today's prison population likely includes only the most dangerous offenders.Two examples:

- An Indiana woman was fatally beaten last week by her ex-husband, who had been released from the state prison on an eight-hour furlough. He was serving an eight-year term for beating the woman and criminally confining their two children in 1987. Though she had told friends she feared for her life when he left prison, she was not informed of his release.

- Willie Horton, the convicted Massachusetts murderer who attacked a Maryland couple when he was out on a weekend furlough. His release and subsequent crime were spotlighted during the recent presidential campaign.

Not all prisoners have committed violent crimes, and furlough programs in the United States and Canada are successfully and widely used for the most part. A survey published in Corrections Compendium, a trade publication, shows that 22 of 59 prison systems in the United States and Canada reported few or no problems with such programs.

According to the survey, several states have minimum eligibility requirements that forbid violent offenders from participating in furlough programs. But many don't.

Massachusetts officials have apparently done some re-thinking of their philosophy since the Horton incident. A 1988 amendment to the law excludes prisoners serving a life sentence for a first degree felony. But why must innocent people suffer at the hands of criminals they believe are locked up before stricter minimum eligibility requirements are adopted?

Indiana allows furloughs for medium/maximum security inmates in "extreme situations," though in light of the last week's tragedy, the program has been suspended. Utah, while it released prisoners to work programs or halfway houses shortly before they are to be paroled, does not have a furlough program as such.

Its time prison officials realize they're putting lives on the line every time they let violent offenders out "for good behavior." If criminals exhibited such good behavior outside prison bars, they never would have been sentenced to serve time in the first place.