As recently as 50 years ago, many suspects charged with routine crimes went to jail until they were tried.

If the judge thought the suspect might be able to raise $25 or $50, he set the bail at $200 -- just high enough to be out of reach.

By the time a suspect came to trial, it made little difference whether the jury found him innocent or guilty. He had already spent a long time in jail and had already been punished.

Today we try to avoid discriminating against poor people. If the accused has community roots, is likely to appear for trial and poses no danger to the community, we do not require him to post bail. He does not have to sit in jail until his trial date.

But quite often cases arise that give us reason to wonder how well our bail system really works. Consider some recent examples:

Ronald Dell Shepherd was one of six suspects charged last month in the alleged murder-for-hire plot. Police said a wife had offered the suspects $3,000 to kill her husband.

Shepherd wasn't required to await trial in jail. The law did him a favor. It released him.

On Monday, two men tried to hold up a newspaper dealer who had previously been a policeman for 20 years.After the holdup men took $300 from the dealer, they noticed that he had a gun. A fight broke out, shots were exchanged, and a few seconds later Ronald Dell Shepherd lay dead in an alley. In retrospect, perhaps the law didn't really do him much of a favor by kputting him back on the street.

In any case, compare Shepherd's story with that of Dane J. Barnhard. Fairfax County police arrested Barnhard last August and charged him with selling $140,000 worth of cocaine to an undercover cop. In an effort to keep Barnhard in jail, the judge set his bail at $200,000, but the suspect quickly produced $200,000 in cash and walked out without even seeing the inside of a jail cell.

Prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. Predicted that Barnhard would not show up for the trial that was set for April 20. The police predicted he wouldn't show up. And he didn't.

Washington Post staff writer Ronald D. White reported yesterday on the reaction of assistant Fairfax prosecutor Rodney Leffler. Shortly after Barnhard posted bail, informants saw him board a plane headed for distant places. The informants said Barnhard was carrying $400,000 in cash. So Leffler's comment was, "I don't think we'll see this guy again."

Well, where does all this leave us? When a suspect is turned loose without posting bail, policemen sometimes grumble that their work has been in vain: either they'll be arresting him several more times before his trail date as he tries to steal enough money to hire a good lawyer, or he'll skip town before the trial and they'll never see him again. And even when judges require as much bail as they think the Eighth Amendment will permit, the police are frustrated. Suspects (especially drug dealers) produce huge sums of cash for bail, leave town and go into business somewhere else. It happens frequently.

I have no remedies for this sad situation. I recognize the existence of a problem, but I cannot suggest a solution to it. I'm as lost on the bail issue as I am on handguns.

As do millions of other people, I support legislation to "control" handguns. Most gun-control proposals would limit legal ownership of handguns to people with jobs and community roots, no criminal record, no record of mental or emotional illness, and no record of drug or alcohol abuse. We want evidence of probity.

Such proposals appear to make good sense until one reads (as we did in Monday's Post) that a judge in Harpers Ferry has been charged with owning an unlicensed .38 revolver and that the judge is involved in a controversy about whether he "brandished" the gun after barging into a private home unbidden. This, alas, puts gun "control" into a new light.

The purpose of gun laws is to keep guns out of the "wrong" hands. We want to limit ownership to the "right" people, presumably people like doctors, lawyers and judges. But even doctors, lawyers and judges sometimes do foolish things with guns. In fact, as long as guns exist they will be misused. So why do we delude ourselves that we can control handguns?

My answer is: I am for gun "control" because we must do something , and I know of nothing that offers a better prospect of someday reducing terrorist acts to a minimum.