It is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for reducing crime. For nearly two decades now, the nation has struggled to mount a successful anti-crime program. Billions have been expended--on research, experimental approaches and direct financial aid to police departments and court and prison systems. Yet things have steadily worsened. The urban environment today is more dangerous than it was in 1966, the time of the first riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles.

As one who has traveled widely, I must acknowledge our country's reputation for tolerating street crime. It is said that if one wants to study robbery and burglary, he had best come to the United States.

But the fact that the past recipes have not worked does not mean that we can give up in the name of budget-cutting. To talk tough, but spend less--the administration's program to date--is either demagogic or hypocritical or both. Surely it is irresponsible. Crime in the streets is a form of anarchy every bit as dangerous to democratic government as foreign enemies.

The law, particularly the criminal law, functions as a teacher. It states our commitment to punish those who commit serious crimes. When career criminals are let off with light sentences, the law is humbled, and all of us are rendered more vulnerable to predators who have learned in the most practical way that we don't take our laws seriously.

Next year, it is likely that 18,000 Americans will be murdered (an increase of 50 percent from a decade ago), and 3 million more robbed, assaulted or raped. Two million households will be burglarized.

We can count on it--unless we act to prevent it.

The administration's chief action to date has been killing off the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and cutting back the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. Yet everyone who has studied the crime problem, including the attorney general's own Task Force on Violent Crime, believes that state and local government cannot do it alone. There is a continuing need for a sharply targeted program of technical and financial help. LEAA accomplished much in upgrading a creaky, 19th century criminal justice system. With continued funding, it would have achieved more.

For example, LEAA could continue its investigation of "plea bargaining" practices. Plea bargaining is the name lawyers give to the process by which a defendant is allowed to plead guilty to a less serious crime than the one he is charged with committing. In our system, most criminal cases are disposed of in this way--the prosecutor and the defense counsel make a deal. Trial by jury is the exception. It is difficult to explain to non-lawyers why a person charged with a serious crime-- armed robbery, for example--should be treated as if he committed only a minor misdemeanor or two, in exchange for surrendering his right to trial.

Some lawyers think that lay persons aren't smart enough to comprehend the value of plea bargaining. The truth is more nearly the opposite: the ordinary citizen understands only too well that a system of plea bargaining cripples the deterrent force of the criminal law. It is we lawyers who need re-education.

I don't suggest that all plea bargaining is undesirable, but only that a system that routinely downgrades serious offenses in the name of bureaucratic expediency lacks credibility. I wish criminal lawyers--and judges as well--were as vocal in emphasizing the shortcomings of plea bargaining as they are in identifying its merits. We need improved ways of processing criminal cases that don't rely on deals between opposing counsel and that provide a better "bargain" for the public safety.

Plea bargaining is closely linked to another problem that the LEAA examined: prison overcrowding. The housing shortage today is severe. For a long time, we have been convicting more criminals than our institutions can contain. As a result, many of our prisons have become savage places where much crime among inmates is tolerated. They may not be the worst in the world, but they are no credit to us.

The consequence of overcrowding is that dangerous persons, unfit for civil society, are granted probation or given suspended sentences because there is no secure place to hold them. To those who become their victims, it is no answer to say that prisons are schools for crime, or that we cannot afford to build more of them.

However, building new prisons need not be our primary response. There may be a host of unexplored alternatives between the suspended sentence and the maximum security facility, alternatives that are less expensive and more humane and that provide the necessary supervision for convicted persons. Intensive supervision in a structured work environment in the community may be an answer for many offenders. Work release programs which impose a set routine on prisoners hold many advantages.

There may be other approaches that deserve attention as well. Punishment has a legitimate place in a free society. It need not maim, physically or psychically, those imprisoned. Nearly all will eventually be released to live law-abiding lives.

Totally apart from specific proposals for reform, whether related to prisons or plea bargaining or any other matter, there is a more immediate task: to remind ourselves that current levels of crime in America are neither normal or tolerable. The battle is not over or lost. I still believe, in the words of President Johnson's National Crime Commission, that "America can control crime if it will."

Former vice president Mondale is currently practicing law.