SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ In the early 1970s, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan firmly defended a work furlough program for California prison inmates that was similar to the Massachusetts program that Vice President George Bush has attacked recently.

And just as Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis today faces political criticism for violent crimes committed by inmates on work furloughs, Reagan also faced complaints from conservative politicians and police officials that his policies had put dangerous criminals on the streets.

Like Dukakis, the expected Democratic nominee for president, who continued a work furlough program started under a governor of the opposite party, Reagan inherited his furlough program from Democratic Gov. Pat Brown.

Reagan implemented Brown's program vigorously and boasted that California had one of the most progressive inmate rehabilitation programs in the nation and that he was reducing California's prison population while other states were struggling with prison overcrowding.

But after two inmates were charged with murders committed while on work furlough passes, Reagan fired one top manager of the program and closed one of five work furlough centers.

At one point, conservative legislators were demanding the resignation of Reagan's director of prisons, and the Los Angeles chief of police, Ed Davis, who is now a Republican state senator, complained to Reagan that ''about 40 percent of our serious and violent offenders are on active parole from your Department of Corrections.''

Reagan resisted the demands to fire his director of prisons and stood behind the furlough program, which still operates today under slightly more restrictive rules.

In addition to the work furlough program, Reagan also administered a probation subsidy program under which counties were paid a $2,000 annual bonus for each convicted felon who would otherwise go to state prison who they instead placed in a county jail or community rehabilitation program.

As a result of the two programs, Reagan became the only California governor in modern times to have the prison population decline during his tenure.

Bob Gore, information officer for the California Department of Corrections, said during Reagan's administration, inmates with clean records in prison were eligible for work furlough, even if they had committed violent crimes such as murder. Today's work furlough rules exclude inmates convicted of murder and other violent crimes.

But the two work furlough cases which resulted in California murders in the early 1970s both involved inmates with no history of violence - a burglar and a forger.

The burglar's case came first and attracted the most attention because he killed a police officer. But the forger's case three months later, although receiving only minimal public attention, triggered a shake-up of the California program.

Two days after the first murder by a work furlough inmate, Reagan vigorously defended the program during a general news conference, saying that California was ''leading the nation in rehabilitation,'' but that ''obviously you can't be perfect.''

''More than 20,000 already have these passes ... and this was the only case of this kind, the only murder,'' Reagan said.

The first murder was on Oct. 25, 1971, when officer Phillip Riley stopped David Brenenstahl, who was driving a reported stolen car in the exclusive Marina del Rey district of Los Angeles. As Riley attempted to handcuff Brenenstahl, the suspect wrestled the officer's gun away from him and shot him.

Brenenstahl, who had been sentenced to state prison three years earlier for burglary, was on a 72-hour work furlough at the time and had just obtained a job as a machinist which would have qualified him for early release from prison.

Brenenstahl was later convicted of second-degree murder for Riley's death and sent back to state prison. He was paroled in 1981.

The second murder occurred on Jan. 21, 1972, when Gerald F. Mitchell and his wife, Karen, were accosted outside their Orange County apartment by a gunman in a robbery attempt. When Mitchell resisted, the robber shot him once in the heart and fled.

The gunman was later identified as William Cartwright, a convicted forger on a work furlough.