WITH THE FORCE of new law, word is going out across Montgomery County of a serious and potentially effective crackdown on destructive acts of racial and religious intolerance. The signal comes in the form of emergency legislation approved unanimously by the county council and effective immediately. If it works as well as members hope, other jurisdictions might well try the same approach.

In seeking tougher laws, the council has been careful to limit its provisions to physical acts -- destruction of property -- rather than undertaking efforts that might affect civil liberties protections, including free speech. Cross-burnings, for example, already are the subject of a Maryland state law, as is malicious destruction of property. What Montgomery has done is to 1) add to the property-destruction language the words, "with the intent of intimidating or attempting to intimidate any person because of race, religion or national origin," and 2) apply civil liability instead of criminal penalties, with swift procedures, restitution for victims and money for a "tipster" fund similar to the county's successful Crimestopper program.

Under the new measures, proposed by council members Michael Gudis and David L. Scull, anyone found responsible for such destructive acts would be liable for a minimum $2,000 fine, with the amount determined by a judge. Half the fine would go to the victim and half to the county for rewards for information leading to apprehension. A judge also could find parents liable for damages up to $5,000 for juveniles committing such acts, or could order youths to perform some sort of "alternative community service" as restitution.

The swift imposition of a fine rather than the more cumbersome criminal proceedings may have the desired deterrent effect. It's worth finding out.