IN FAIRFAX COUNTY, to take an outstanding example, people who have been arrested are brought before a magistrate -- one is availible 24 hours a day -- to set the conditions of their release. There are no pre-set bail amounts for any offense. For too long, things were different in the District. People arrested for serious crimes could be back on the streets without even making a court appearance because of the use of low pre-set "station house bonds" that could be posted at the police stations. That's how two men, arrested last October in connection with one of the largest cocaine seizures in the District's history, were able to get back on the streets immediately. Both had only to come up with $500 for a $5,000 station house bond, a pittance in a drug case of this magnitude. Were station house bonds appropriate in this case? Were higher bonds in order? The fact that both men subsequently fled and skipped their court hearings suggests the answer.

Federal court judges here have now voted to eliminate station house bonds for crimes of violence, espionage and weapons offenses and for all narcotics violations except those involving marijuana. The U.S. attorney also says that anyone seeking a station house bond for other crimes will be subjected to at least a brief screening. These are positive steps.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that there must be a better way. The ACLU says that eliminating station house bonds will exacerbate overcrowding at the D.C Jail. That might not be the case. That is because station house bonds will still be available for all other felony charges and for all misdemeanors. Several defense attorneys and other officials say the changes will affect only 5 to 10 percent of those arrested every day.

The important thing to remember here is that there ought to be an element of scrutiny and discretion when setting bond for serious crimes. Nor should these changes be construed as an assault on a defendant's legal right to reasonable bail. Bail should not be automatic, nor should it be insignificantly low, especially given the enormous financial resources available to major drug dealers. The changes voted by these federal judges are the best way to ensure that those accused of serious crimes will be on hand later to stand trial.