No wonder people looking at government get so exasperated. The District, with its burgeoning street crime, has needed more prison space for years. Finally, the mayor and the D.C. Council agreed that a new prison was necessary and then undertook a careful review of all site alternatives. Congress, during my chairmanship of the Senate's subcommittee on D.C. appropriations, appropriated $30 million to build the new facility for the city. The mayor's administration quite properly designed the new institution to concentrate on drug detoxification, for which the District has an overwhelming need because of the escalating use of dangerous drugs such as "crack."

The money was provided two years ago, the site was selected one year ago, and yet construction still has not begun and may be subject to further delay. What happened?

The Senate, which all along had kept its hands off the site-selection issue out of respect for the principle of "home rule," recently decided that other sites should again be considered and delayed construction until at least Feb. 1, 1988, when a report on alternative sites is due. While this has been justified on the ground that no construction could be started before that date anyway, I am very much concerned that this could be the wedge that will undo all the progress previously made and could result in further delays.

Few neighborhoods want to be the site of a prison. It certainly is not surprising that when any site is selected, some people living near it will object strenuously. This provides all the more reason why, once the D.C. government has resolved this contentious issue, Congress should be reluctant to inject itself in the dispute. I question whether extensive delay can be avoided where the Senate's action may force the city to reconsider sites it previously rejected and sites owned by federal agencies that previously refused to make them available.

Any further delays could endanger all District residents. District residents -- and I am one who spends considerable time here -- want safe streets and deserve them. Delays in constructing the new prison translate into early release of inmates who may be dangerous, probation for convicted offenders who otherwise would be in jail, and overcrowded facilities that threaten the safety and health of inmates, corrections personnel and citizens alike. Delay increases the risk that the District's correctional system will be a revolving door, a correctional system that does not correct. We simply cannot afford, because of overcrowded and inadequate facilities, to deny addicted offenders effective drug rehabilitation and return them unreformed to a life of crime on the District's streets.

In addition to the public safety concerns, there is another compelling reason why the Senate should exercise restraint on this issue: the right of the mayor, city government and District residents to govern their own affairs, which they are most capable of doing.

I raised these concerns on the Senate floor when the District of Columbia appropriations bill was being considered. Assurances were given that there would be no construction delays because it could not begin in any event before next February. I consider it crucial that no further delay should be tolerated,and Congress should leave the matter in the hands of D.C. officials from this point forward.

-- Arlen Specter is a Republican senator from Pensylvania.