Conservative Chief Justice Warren E. Burger is making a strong new case for prison reform, usually a liberal issue. In the past, the chief justice has written or sided with Supreme Court opinions that strengthened the hand of law-enforcement officials. And the court currently faces a number of cases that may continue a trend towards stricter law enforcement and, perhaps, limitations on the rights of criminals.
In his year-end report issued Monday, Mr. Burger calls for new directions in coping with the ''staggering number of prisoners'' in state and federal institutions. Among his suggestions: building new facilities and renovating old ones to improve conditions and alleviate overcrowding; enhancing the caliber and training of guards and other prison officials, with a view towards making confinement more humane and effective; upgrading education programs and work experience for inmates.
The chief justice indicates that the crisis in prison overcrowding continues to grow more serious. For example, he points out that the total prison population in the US has doubled to 400,000 in the past decade.
''Mandatory sentencing bills adopted by 37 states and 123 new anticrime bills may well enlarge the prison population and lead to more explosions,'' Burger points out. Last year, 39 states were under court order to reduce prison overcrowding.
''One of the grave weaknesses of our prisons has been the lack of training of guards and attendants who have hourly eyeball-to-eyeball contract with prisoners ,'' the chief justice explains. ''If they are not able to cope with inmates - who by definition are abnormal people - prison disturbances, costly riots and often loss of life will result.''
Burger reiterates a theme he has emphasized for several years: ''. . . every correctional institution must be made into a combined educational and production institution - a school and factory with fences.'' He also insists the ''archaic attitudes and obsolete statutes'' limiting the sale of prison-made goods must be changed.
The chief justice says he will soon formally propose that Congress create a National Commission on Corrections Practices to review prison policies and suggest remedial programs.
In his year-end report, Burger also addresses the burgeoning problem of courtroom caseloads. He scores Congress and others for not sufficiently coming to judges' aid. But he does give federal lawmakers credit for passing the Federal Court Improvement Act of 1982, which, among other things, has merged several courts, saved taxpayers more than $1 million, and helped cut intercircuit conflicts.
Bills dealing with the Supreme Court's workload, the chief justice points out , are still on Congress's docket. For example, the idea of a National Court of Appeals - first introduced in 1972 - remains under consideration. Under two new bills, an intermediate court would have jurisdiction over cases referred to it by the Supreme Court and would be able to deny review ''unless directed by the Supreme Court to decide the case.''
Other pending legislation affecting the Court would eliminate statutory mandatory jurisdiction in the US Supreme Court - giving it virtual total discretion in selecting cases for review. Another provision of this bill - already passed by the House and awaiting Senate action - would allow federal courts to determine which civil actions merit expedited handling.
Burger stresses that all nine justices of the Supreme Court endorse elimination of mandatory jurisdiction. Versions of the current legislation have been introduced in the last three Congresses. But up to now, no such law has been enacted.
Looking toward broader solutions to America's judicial problems, the chief justice favors the creation of a bipartisan commission (with members appointed by the heads of the three branches of government) to make a comprehensive study of state and federal courts.