Chief Justice Warren E. Burger warned last month that we ought not allow ourselves to be "misled by cliches and slogans that if we but abolish poverty, crime will also disappear." He said it was time to get tough with criminals, including taking a much tougher stand on pretrial release of criminal suspects.

A few days ago, former attorney general Griffin Bell picked up the balefull (bailless?) refrain. "We're just not tough enough or strong enough to have a safe society," said Bell, who has been named by the present attorney general, William French Smith, to co-chair an anti-crime task force.

"I get a little weary of these people who say, 'Well, the only reason we're having more violent crime is we have a higher unemployment rate.' Well, we didn't have a high violent crime rate during the Great Depression. What's come over us? We justify everything. We're a nation of apologists. We've got to stop that."

Well, of course. Paint the increase in violent crime as the natural result of the ascendancy of bleeding-heart liberals who spend their waking hours "apologizing" for criminals and everybody becomes a conservative. But is that an accurate reflection of reality? Does getting tough really solve the problem? And if getting tough won't do it, what in the name of street safety will do it?

The question came up during recent hearings before Rep. John Conyers' House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice. No one came up with a satisfactory answer, but I was fascinated by one exchange (reported by The Los Angeles Times) between Rep. Sam B. Hall Jr. of Texas and Kenneth B. Clark, the New York psychologist.

Clark, whose work became a part of the basis for the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision, told the subcommittee that the traditional responses to crime increases -- building more jails, ordering longer sentences and "unleashing" the police -- usually backfire. They don't solve the problem, he said, but only increase the "adversary relationship between the underclass and society." Then:

Hall: "Then it's your position that punishment has nothing to do with whether a person is deterred from committing a violent crime?"

Clark: "That's my personal position. . . . You gentlemen are middle class and you have a particular respect for punishment, for penalty. You have something to lose. You would be embarrassed, you would be disgraced if your son or daughter were caught committing a crime. What is difficult for you to understand is that this society has made it possible for too large a group of people not to have this respect."

Hall: "Are you stating that the penalties we have set out . . . dealing with violent crime are not sufficient? Are you stating that they are too extreme, or not extreme enough?"

Clark: "No sir. I am saying that they are not necessarily particularly relevant."

Hall: "Are you saying that we should not have any penalties for violent crime?"

Clark: "No, I did not say that. I am trying to communicate something that may be difficult for you to understand. I'm trying to put myself in the position of an individual whose day-to-day reality supports the contention that he does not have anything to lose by violating what you consider the normal, inseparable rules and regulations of society. Those rules and regulations have been so violated as far as his life is concerned that you are taking a different language. You talk penalty, you talk punishment, you talk all kinds of things that make sense for individuals whose views are equivalent."

Hall: "You're not advocating two standards of punishment for those in the middle class and those who have not attained that status?"

Clark: "What I am advocating is that if you are really going to do something about crime, society will have to address itself to the roots of violence, to the roots of racially related crime. You will have to do something extremely difficult: namely, a total reexamination of some of the givers, assumptions and explanations of the society of which we are a part."

Naturally members of the subcommittee were not satisfied. They were looking for an effective, short-term solution to a problem that threatens the very existence of civilized society, and here was this learned black man telling them, most exasperatingly, that what they were looking for doesn't exist.

He was telling them not so much that poverty and unemployment cause crime but that the growing sense of alienation from the society removes the social controls that keep most of us from criminal activity. Once these social controls disappear, "getting tough" only makes matters worse. Not only don't the alienated care very much about society's sanctions, he said, but "in some cases, they have a moment in the sun in the case of being caught."

Clark, who is thoughtful to the point of brilliance, was under no illusion that his remarks would affect the deliberations of the subcommittee.

"I think," he said, "that you are going to deal with the problem in a way that will intensify it."