The question "Where are the fathers?" raised in last week's column discussed the impact of fatherless homes on children living in crime-plagued public housing developments ["The District's Partners in Crime," July 3]. This week, a reader, Eric Lotke, weighed in with a response of his own.

"Sadly, many of them are in prison. You know the numbers in the District of Columbia," he wrote. I do, and the math is grim.

"Fifty percent of the young black men are involved in the justice system on any given day -- in prison or jail, probation or parole, out on bond or wanted on a warrant," Lotke said. He should know. He's the executive director of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Service Project, a public-interest law firm that works with men and women in the city's prison system.

Reality is even more unpleasant up close. I recall meeting with a group of inmates at the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility a few years ago. One said he was the father of three children, each 6 years old. The kids weren't triplets, however. Six years earlier, when he was 16 years old, he had gotten three different girls pregnant. "They were born one month apart," he said sheepishly. I told him he belonged in jail.

An absent father, one behind bars, is a bad enough combination. It's even worse when the offender ends up being warehoused for a few years, only to be returned to his neighborhood meaner and more drug-involved than when he went in.

Don't think so? Half the men who leave prison commit new crimes and return to prison, Lotke notes. He lays this high recidivism rate squarely at the door of the prison system. Here's where he and I part company.

Admittedly, Department of Corrections is not where the fires of genius blaze. But inmates can't be let off the hook, either. Consider those who leave prison and don't return to jail. They represent the other half. Despite prison conditions, these men apparently have accepted personal responsibility for their behavior, learned some lessons from their downfall and are trying to turn their lives around.

Besides, the Department of Corrections doesn't authorize and fund the city's prison system. Nor do Corrections officers appoint, approve or oversee their department's leadership. Those tasks belong to the mayor and D.C. Council. If any group deserves to take a hit for saddling the city with a rotten prison system, it's our glory-seeking politicians.

But don't worry. The pols aren't safely beyond reach of their defective creation. Those locked-up fathers, sons and brothers won't stay gone. Yes, D.C., they're coming back.

And look for the budding recidivists to return to the same neighborhoods and public housing projects they terrorized before becoming guests of the city. And guess what? They'll be hitting the streets punished but not rehabilitated, criminally sophisticated but uneducated and no better off skills-wise than when they first went behind bars.

Let's be clear: Most deserve to be separated from law-abiding citizens. But some offenders -- and here's where Lotke and I agree -- can be reintegrated into society. Restoring them to the social fold through a combination of rehabilitative programming and a solid community Corrections program would serve both their and society's interests. But that is not happening as it should. And unless the public demands otherwise, investment in proper rehabilitation is not in the cards with the District's current crop of political yupsters.

But there's more to the question "Where are the fathers?" than the issue of incarceration.

It's misleading and unfair to suggest that most absent fathers are caught up in the criminal justice system. That's not true. Many are caught up in other things -- including themselves.

The 1998 Morehouse Conference on African American Fathers, which examined father absence in black America, tried to identify some of the reasons for the badly frayed black family bonds. Don't think there's a problem? This from the conference statement: "Among the most urgent problems facing the African American community . . . is the reality that 70 percent of African American children are born to unmarried mothers, and that at least 80 percent of all African American children can now expect to spend at least a significant part of their childhood years living apart from their fathers." That's not something to worry about?

Now to the reasons. Some conference experts point to the lack of work opportunities as a cause of black father absence. There's a correlation between good job opportunities and declining crime rates, they say. Hmmm.

Absentee fatherhood also is rising among better-off African American men and "nearly all races and ethnic groups in the United States," according to the conference. So evidently the problem has more than an economic dimension.

Another group of experts said that African American father absence "is caused by damaging and historically rooted cultural patterns that promote behaviors leading to high rates of out-of-wedlock births, low rates of marriage and conflictual relationships between Black men and Black women." Huh?

The conference papers contained an excerpt from my colleague William Raspberry's luncheon speech at the Morehouse Conference. Raspberry said it best: "Are black fathers necessary? You know, I'm old and I'm tired, and there are just some things that I just don't want to debate anymore. One of them is whether African American children need fathers. Another is whether marriage matters. Does marriage matter? You bet it does. Are black fathers necessary? Damn straight we are."

But let's face it: The link between father and child is weak in this city, especially in neighborhoods where the love, protection and guidance of mature, strong role models are most needed. So it's falling to others in the District -- both public and private actors -- to pick up the slack.

There are signs of movement. We see it in the work of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which brokered peace and lifestyle changes among rival gangs in the city. We see it in groups such as Mentors Inc. and their volunteers who are helping hundreds of youths find new vistas and conquer new goals.

This week, Gen. Colin Powell, a national leader in the effort to reclaim our youth and keep them on the right path, sent a brief note: "We've got to start with the kids and that means flooding their lives with caring, loving successful adults." It's happening on a nationwide scale, he said. "Big Brothers and Sisters are up 40 percent. Boys and Girls Clubs are opening five clubs a week. Lots of good things happening, a lot more to be done," wrote Powell.

In behalf of the fatherless kids in places such as East Capitol Dwellings, Powell closed with a command that only a retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and leader of America's Promise: The Alliance for Youth could issue: "Keep beating the drum -- the farm teams for Lorton need to be closed down." Yes, sir.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.