IN 1987, some 1,658 juveniles were arrested on drug charges in the District, an increase of 67 percent over 1986. As recently as 1977, only about 300 youths a year were charged with drug crimes. For the first time, youths aged 12 and younger were also arrested for drug trafficking on the streets of Washington. That included a 10-year-old boy who was caught selling drugs on three separate occasions. "More and more juveniles are selling," says Assistant D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. About 200 D.C. youths suffered gunshot wounds last year -- an average of four a week.

The city was and still is woefully unprepared for this epidemic of drug-related violence among youth. Programs designed to reach some of these prospective criminals and victims aren't doing even passably well. City officials cite a dearth of existing treatment facilities and drug programs for juveniles.

Some other promised programs have never materialized. In 1986, for example, the D.C. government planned to offer young people special counseling and monitoring after their first involvement in crime. In the next two years, some 4,400 juveniles were arrested for minor offenses, but there were no referral services for any of them. At the same time, the city's public schools were planning and opening an alternative school for juvenile delinquents, complete with special counseling services. The school was designed for 400 students, but it has only 40. Why? City officials say rules on confidentiality prevent them from informing the city school system of arrested juveniles, and therefore the schools cannot reach out to kids in need.

It gets worse. The city's juvenile detention system has been bursting at the seams. Last July, D.C. Superior Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the city to reduce the number of youths who had already been incarcerated. Judge Urbina also ordered the city to open five "secure" group homes for violent and chronic young offenders, including one for drug abusers and dealers. The judge also told city officials to find short-term and long-term foster care placement for 60 youths and new group homes for another 120 children. But D.C. officials have been unable so far to provide any of these facilities. Meanwhile, more youths are being arrested and fed into the overwhelmed criminal justice system. This is the difficult but ever more urgent task before the D.C. government now.