Ten years ago, America's incarceration rate was third in the world, lower only than that of the Soviet Union and South Africa. Today we can say what every football player shouts into the panning TV camera: We're No. 1!

Of every 100,000 Americans today, 426 are behind bars. The comparable figures: South Africa, 333; the Soviet Union, 268; Great Britain, 97; Spain, 76; Italy, 60; the Netherlands, 40.

For black men, the numbers are even more appalling: 3,109 per 100,000, compared with the South African rate of 729 per 100,000. One black American male in four is either behind bars, on probation or on parole.

The statistics are from the latest report of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit agency committed to sentencing reform. But more interesting than the numbers, which by now have lost their shock value, are the policy implications.

The temptation is to believe that our increasing incarceration rates are merely a reflection of increasing criminality. But as the report's author, Marc Mauer, points out, it's not that simple.

"While there is little question that the United States has a high rate of crime," he says, "there is much evidence that the increase in the number of people behind bars in recent years is a consequence of harsher criminal justice policies of the past decade, rather than a direct consequence of rising crime. ...

"The growth of the prison populations in the past decade, for example, shows incarceration rates do not rise or fall directly with crime rates. Although the crime rate has dropped by 3.5 percent since 1980, the prison population has doubled in that period."

The reasons include an increasingly punitive public attitude that manifests itself in mandatory incarceration laws (now in effect in 46 states), tougher federal sentencing guidelines and harsher drug laws. In other words, a greater percentage of offenders are being sentenced to prison than was the case a decade ago.

This is particularly true with regard to the "war on drugs," probably the biggest single factor behind both the overall increase in incarceration rates and the disproportionate rise in black male incarceration.

"While drug arrests and prosecutions have increased each year since 1980," Mauer notes, "the number of African Americans arrested for drug offenses has increased at an even more rapid rate than has the arrest rate for the population as a whole." Not only has the black inner city been the chief battlefield of the "war on drugs," but other aspects of the anti-drug effort have had race-specific outcomes, inadvertent or not.

For instance, a Minnesota state law (recently held unconstitutional by a county judge) provides for a four-year sentence for first-time users of crack cocaine, but only probation for first-time users of cocaine in its powdered form. Ninety-two percent of those arrested on charges of possession of crack in 1988 were black, while 85 percent of those arrested on charges of possessing powdered cocaine were white.

But the burden of Mauer's paper is that our alarming incarceration rates reflect inappropriate -- even counterproductive -- policy choices.

At the beginning of the 1980s, America's urban areas were marked not merely by crime but also by a declining manufacturing base, low-wage service jobs, school dropout rates of 40 percent or more and an increasingly inadequate supply of low-income housing.

"The choice for policy makers in responding to our high national crime rate, therefore, was very stark. The first option was to continue to build new prisons and jails at a cost of $50,000 a cell or more and to spend $20,000 a year to house each prisoner. The second option was to spend these same tax dollars on prevention policies and services -- programs designed to generate employment and to provide quality education, health care and housing, along with alternatives to incarceration rather than new prison cells. ...

"Overwhelmingly, the punitive policies of the first option were the ones selected at both a national and local level. Had the punitive policies resulted in dramatically reduced crime rates, one could argue that their great expense was partially justified by the results. But as the 1990s begin, we are faced with the same problems as in 1980, only greater in degree."

Mauer calls for "a national commission on crime to explore why American incarceration rates are so high and to recommend programs to reduce the number of prisoners without affecting public safety."

But we know enough already to take the first steps to saner policy. We need to repeal the mandatory sentencing laws, begin treating drug abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal justice problem and get serious about saving black males: not out of sympathy for criminals but out of concern for the social and economic costs of our present approach.