THE FIRST ANSWER is always more money.

Citizens demand harsher penalties and mandatory sentences but balk at the tremendous cost of prison construction. Courts will not tolerate overcrowding or oppressive conditions and will mandate expenditures that raise the operating costs of institutions. Most jurisdictions, therefore, have been faced with the need to use probation with increasing frequency simply to keep the pressure off already burdened prisons. Gradually, and probably without much thought to the overall consequences of thousands of individual decisions, more of the very dangerous people who should be in prison have been released on probation. The California study demonstrates the high-risk nature of this practice.

In Colonial times, before the prison system was developed, offender were either given such penalties as a few days in the stocks or a local jail, or, in the case of dozens of crimes, put to death. There was nothing in between. Today, the options are less extreme but almost as exclusive. Either a felon is incarcerated or he is set free with inadequate supervision. The Rand study suggests a range of alternatives between these sentences. First, all offenders who are not sent to prison must be classified -- this is already done in Maryland, for example -- with those least likely to repeat violent crimes placed on traditional probation. Others, especially those convicted of felonies and judged dangerous, must be placed in highly structured, carefully supervised programs. Pilot projects for high-risk offenders in New York and Wisconsin illustrate what must be done. Intensive surveillance has to be provided, coupled with substantial community service and restitution; there should be real constraints on movement and action, required employment and mandatory counseling and therapy programs. Mechanisms must be provided for immediately punishing probationers who commit infractions, and probation officers, whose original role was counseling and rehabilitation, should be given the training and the quasi-police power they need to deal with dangerous offenders.

Providing these sanctions will be expensive but not as costly as building and maintaining new prisons or compensating and caring for the victims of new crimes. Strengthening probation services is sensible self-defense. Rand researchers in California know it must be done. Six families in Silver Spring may have cause to agree.