Their faces are crammed into the city police mug file like it was a year book, with row after row and page after page of dead-eyed profiles and poses, so many similar sneers and scars that they look like classmates from the same bad school.

Whole shelves are consumed by a year's worth of suspicious personalities, and while physical characteristics are denoted, race need not be mentioned for it is apparent that these are special volumes of young black men.

A continuing crisis is represented in the snapshots even as talk of constructing a new prison in Washington resumes.

But in order for a new prison to be anything more than a crime factory, a closer look must be taken at who these men are, and the factor of race must be dealt with head-on.

While there are differences in the crime rates among ethnic and racial groups in every society, blacks in America, while only one-eighth of the population, are convicted of half of all rapes, robberies and murders and a fourth of burglaries, larcenies and aggravated assaults.

Because Washington is 70 percent black, we expect the prison system to reflect this majority.

But Lorton is 98 percent black, and the fact that the incarceration rate here is higher than in South Africa is phenomenal.

In their book "Crime and Human Nature," Harvard Professors James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein cite four major theories that purport to account for racial differences in the prevalence of crime.

The first view holds that factors such as low intelligence and bad tempers are correlated with high crime rates among blacks.

The second view is that economic deprivation causes criminal behavior, and that because blacks, more than whites, have faced an acute shortage of economic opportunities, they have turned in greater numbers to crime.

The third view is that, for whatever reason, black family life does not induce in children either a sufficiently strong regard for the good opinion of others or a sufficiently long time horizon to make them value conventional norms or defer instant pleasures for delayed rewards.

Finally, there is the view that blacks are more likely than whites to commit crimes, not as a result of rational economic choice or inadequate family socialization but because many of them have acquired through experience a hostile view of the larger society and its values.

Rather than shunning such theories, it would seem that those aspects that we know to be true could be grafted onto a new criminal justice philosophy that works as hard to keep men out of prison as to keep them behind bars.

Prenatal care, for example, should be a part of an overall crime prevention strategy because there is a correlation between this kind of care and higher intelligence.

To some, having a "hostile view of the larger society" may seem understandable, but that theory must be weighed against the reality that the victims of black criminals often come from black neighborhoods, not the "larger society."

Indeed, if economic opportunity is the goal, why do black criminals spend so much time ripping off the least fortunate of their neighbors?

Authors Wilson and Herrnstein preface their discussion of these theories by saying, "In the United States, the higher average crime rates of blacks have been used to support claims that blacks were morally inferior. Today, many persons, white and black, remembering the sorry history of racism in this country, prefer not to discuss race differences in crime rates at all, for fear of either giving offense to a group that has been persecuted enough or giving encouragement to those who would continue the persecution."

However, it seems that not to discuss these matters should offend the entire community, because it is about our safety, especially in black neighborhoods.

When criminals go to prison, they have already done harm. And by letting them out without any idea of what their problems were, we merely encourage them to continue.