Joyce Rawlings said life in Alexandria's Lynhaven neighborhood is better now. Hundreds of arrests, teamed with citizen activism, have slowed the street-corner drug trade that once gave her 12-year-old son nightmares.

But like many Alexandrians, Rawlings said progress has come at a very dear price: The great majority of those locked away are young black men who succumbed to the temptation of $20 highs and $100 sneakers.

"A little girl came up to me one day -- she was about 9, I guess," said Rawlings, 40, an outreach counselor at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College. "And she said, 'Gosh, Miss Rawlings, there aren't going to be any boys around here when I grow up.' "

By virtually every statistical measure, local and federal law enforcement efforts in Alexandria have taken a toll on a crack-fueled subculture that once flourished openly in several neighborhoods.

Using what some officials and defense lawyers have described as a "carpet-bombing" approach, police and federal agents saturated five small neighborhoods with drug enforcement resources and personnel. The result: more arrests, successful prosecutions and lengthy prison terms.

Despite their victories, however, prosecutors are discouraged that police continue to identify dozens of local addicts and dealers. And though prosecutors said they were guided to particular neighborhoods by the pleas of their residents, officials and community members are troubled and saddened that drug enforcement efforts have capitalized on young black males willing to risk imprisonment for a cheap rush or a few months' escape from poverty.

"Society has always responded to its social problems by trying to lock people up," said Alexandria Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. " . . . I'm not saying these people shouldn't be punished, but let's be realistic about what law enforcement can do."

Alexandria is not alone in its frustration. Then-D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. drew fire a little over a year ago when he said that despite arresting thousands of drug suspects, law enforcement officials alone could not reverse the escalating drug-related homicide rate.

In Maryland, Prince George's County police also boast increasing arrest rates, but add that in the past year they have committed 15 full-time officers to community education programs because law enforcement addresses only part of the problem.

The bottom line, said prosecutors and defense lawyers alike, is that law enforcement does little more than punish offenders. It cannot cure addicts who sell drugs so they can afford to use drugs, it cannot rekindle what they describe as a forgotten respect for positive social values, and it cannot convince the poor that life in the projects is better than time behind bars.

"I'm not sure that someone with a drug habit can be deterred" by law enforcement, said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch, noting that many of those arrested in local sweeps are heavy users of crack cocaine. "Their complete obsession is to find more drugs."

Kloch, who joins others in advocating better education and treatment programs for minor drug offenders, added that those arrested for selling crack on street corners are almost exclusively poorly educated blacks who suffer from "a lack of self-respect and seeing anything in the future."

Kloch also noted that several people nabbed in a recent undercover operation in Alexandria held jobs and supplemented their income by drug dealing. That theme surfaced in a Rand Corp. report released this month that found that more than two-thirds of those charged with drug dealing in the District held legitimate jobs.

A handful of defense lawyers in Alexandria said some of those arrested for selling drugs fulfill a traditional role as a provider by using drug profits to help support their families.

Lloyd F. Sammons, a local defense lawyer, said substance abuse and poverty go hand in hand, thus compounding the difficulty of waging an effective campaign against drugs. "I don't see how they're ever going to mop up drugs when people are poor," Sammons said. "The poor sell drugs to make money, but they also do drugs because they're miserable."

In their efforts to clean up the most visible manifestations of the drug trade, Alexandria law enforcement officials have racked up impressive numbers, more than tripling personnel and arrests in the last four years.

Sentences have also grown tougher, especially for those caught up in conspiracies investigated by federal authorities. Federal guidelines now mandate at least 10 years in prison without parole for anyone convicted of participating in a group that sells 50 grams of crack -- which has a street value of just $5,000 -- or more.

Federal law enforcement officials said they meet with student and community groups to discuss the stiffer sentences. But they are not sure the word reaches the street and question whether the heavy penalties actually deter any would-be dealers from getting involved in drug trafficking.

Alexandria police have focused their drug efforts on five small neighborhoods: Arlandria and Lynhaven in the city's northeast corner, and three communities northwest of Old Town centered near Queen Street, the Charles Houston Recreation Center and the Braddock Road Metro stop.

According to figures provided by the city, those neighborhoods have the city's lowest median household incomes and are among the areas with the highest minority populations.

They also have been unwilling hosts to the city's larger open-air drug markets.

"Easily two-thirds of our drug arrests are in those areas," said police Lt. Lenny George, adding that half of those arrested are residents of those or adjacent neighborhoods.

In a recent undercover operation, 42 people ranging in age from 19 to 43 were indicted by a state grand jury. All the defendants, most of whom sold a $20 rock of crack to an undercover officer, are black.

Refuting the notion that drug dealers are out-of-town intruders, 38 of the 42 were Alexandria residents and almost half of those were born in the city.

James C. Clark, a defense lawyer who has handled dozens of local drug cases, criticizes the tactics of the local police, saying it was no surprise that all those arrested in the operation were black because police had a young black male make the undercover buys.

Clark is one of many in the Alexandria legal community who equate the drug trade with a risky capital venture, arguing that behind-the-scenes drug figures profit from trafficking while street-based drug runners take the risk -- and the fall.

"A disproportionate share of the city's poor people are in the black community, and they are easy prey for people looking for someone to peddle their drugs. Many of the black runners have been victimized," Clark said.

Melinda Douglas, public defender for the city, said police pursue the poor because the police want good publicity from high arrest numbers and because major traffickers and more affluent drug users are hard to find and prosecute.

"It's easier to catch larger numbers of people with less effort in poor areas, because more affluent people tend not to buy out on the streets," Douglas said.

Local prosecutors, who acknowledge the difficulty in identifying drug users who buy out of restaurants and homes in the city's West End, argue that they respond to neighborhoods that generate the most citizen complaints.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jennifer B. Pollard said she was insulted when a defense lawyer recently asked her, "Why do you want to lock up all the black men?"

Pollard said she is troubled that so many blacks are involved in drug crimes, but added that "you can't choose who to prosecute."

Rosa Byrd, president of the Lynhaven Civic Association, said she and her neighbors sought police help two years ago when drug trafficking threatened to overtake their small community.

"I have the greatest amount of respect for the police. They work for us," Byrd said. "I don't think they come in here and say, 'Okay, we're going to rid young black males from this neighborhood.' "

But William B. Moffitt, another defense lawyer, equated today's prosecutorial fervor with urban renewal programs of the 1960s and '70s, which some civil rights activists caustically referred to as "Negro removal."

Moffitt specifically attacked the tough new sentencing standards, saying that instead of bringing down major drug dealers, they have tripped up young men acting with the foolish bravado of youth.

When that group of defendants has served their time, society will face an even tougher challenge than it has with street-level drug crimes, Moffitt said. "They will gravitate toward the ghetto and we will have a generation of 30-year-old people who have nowhere to go and nothing to do. You'll see violence like you've never saw before."

Alexandria police have quadrupled their narcotics enforcement personnel since 1986.

Drug-related arrests have increased from 268 four years ago to 915 last year. Drug-related indictments for the first six months of 1990 are up 20 percent, despite a slight decline in arrests.

All but one of 53 Alexandria indictments stemming from an undercover police operation last year resulted in a conviction. The Northern Virginia Crack Task Force, a team of local and federal law enforcement officers who have conducted several drug investigations in Alexandria, has lost only one case in two years.

Responding to the May 1989 slaying of Cpl. Charles W. Hill in a drug-related incident in a city public housing project, Alexandria housing officials have evicted 15 families from public housing after police determined the homes were being used to traffic in crack. The city has also revoked several Section 8 housing assistance vouchers because of drug activity.

Although state parole schedules allow some first-time crack violators to serve less than a year in jail, local prosecutors said Circuit Court judges have given increasingly tough sentences.

In U.S. District Court recently, six young Alexandria men received sentences of 12 to 18 years without parole, although evidence showed they possessed no drugs when they were arrested, and sold only small quantities.