While the United States Supreme Court is passing down decisions that seem to be significantly narrowing the rights of the accused - and could result in more convictions and lengthier prison terms for many found guilty of serious crimes - Chief Justice Warren Burger is at the same time looking for ways to make criminal confinement more productive and rehabilitative.
The chief justice, long an advocate of having prisoners earn their keep, made a rare appearance in a public forum at George Washington University on Monday to call for the formation of a national task force to develop model or minimum standards for prisons. He said this should be a public-private pursuit, perhaps following similar guidelines to those followed by the American Law Institute in developing a model US penal code.
Chief Justice Burger is expected to pursue a similar theme during a live interview tonight on ABC's Night Line. Just a year ago, in a commencement address at Pace University, he called for reforms - including changes in state and federal laws - that would help transform prisons from ''human warehouses'' into ''places of education and training and into factories and shops for the production of goods.''
Last summer, the chief justice headed a fact-finding group of congressmen and government and labor officials studying Scandanavian prison industries. Although he did not openly advocate following European practices, he concluded that a ''correctional system that develops good work habits, fosters vocational training, (and) reduces the costs of operating prisons . . . will benefit the entire country.''
The chief justice's renewed efforts to promote ''factories with fences'' comes at a time when his court is issuing decisions on criminal justice that are drawing sharp criticism from civil rights advocates and others. Among them, two handed down last week modify the 70-year-old exclusionary rule, which up to now barred evidence obtained when improper police arrest procedures were involved. Another limited the primacy of so-called Miranda warnings (reading of rights to those arrested) when public dangers were perceived by the police.
Still to come are key rulings on the ''good faith'' exception to the exclusionary rule, which could significantly alter arrest procedures in the US. Much of the law-enforcement community, backed by the Reagan administration, is prodding the court to admit even illegally obtained evidence in court if police are found to have gathered it without knowledge that they have disregarded a suspect's rights.
Liberals and civil libertarians warn that such a change could encourage police abuse in the name of checking crime. But advocates insist that prosecutions abandoned on ''technicalities'' would be curtailed by this move.
Decisions on the ''good faith'' exception could be handed down by the high court as early as today.
Meanwhile, in a related issue, the Supreme Court agreed to decide on how long police officers may detain crime suspects when they don't have sufficient reasons for making an arrest. The court will look at a South Carolina marijuana-smuggling case to decide how ''temporary'' a temporary stop should be.
A federal appeals court overturned two drug-related convictions, ruling that the suspects should not have been detained 30 to 40 minutes while their involvement in possible crimes was being investigated.
The Appeals Court had found that undue long detentions constitute illegal seizures. Government lawyers unsuccessfully argued that investigatory stops can be ''reasonable'' even when they are ''not momentary.''
The totality of the circumstances dictates the reasonableness of the detention, they said.
A year ago, the Supreme Court, in permitting trained dogs to sniff airport luggage for possible drugs, also ruled that detaining luggage for as much as 90 minutes until the dogs could sniff was not permissible.
Also on Tuesday, in a death-penalty ''method'' case, the high court agreed to decide whether states should bar execution by injection with deadly drugs and whether the federal Food and Drug Administration should determine whether lethal injections are quick and painless. Last fall, a federal appellate court ordered a moratorium on this method of execution, pending FDA findings.
However, Chief Justice Burger postponed the date of this stay indefinitely.