Things were looking up in Frenchtown. After years of spiraling out of control, crime had been declining sharply in this neighborhood of rickety frame houses and tumbledown carryouts that forms the historic hub of this city's African American community. Observers credited a variety of aggressive police tactics, including more and longer prison sentences for offenders.

But in 1997, the declining crime rate in Frenchtown began to level off, failing to keep pace with drops in similar Tallahassee neighborhoods. And researchers analyzing crime trends here have fingered an unlikely culprit: the high number of Frenchtown residents sitting in prison cells.

Research here supports a controversial theory being advanced by an increasing number of criminologists, who have concluded that although high incarceration rates generally have helped reduce crime, they eventually may reach a "tipping point," where so many people in a given neighborhood are going to prison that it begins to destabilize the community and becomes a factor that increases crime.

"Until recently, nobody has really thought about incarceration in the aggregate," said Dina R. Rose, one of the researchers studying the relationship between incarceration and crime in the Frenchtown area. "Many people assume that incarceration reduces crime. But when incarceration gets to a certain density, that is when you see the effects change."

Rose, a sociologist at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, found that in high-crime Tallahassee neighborhoods that were otherwise comparable, crime reductions were lower in those with the greatest number of people moving in and out of prison. With high incarceration rates, she argues, prison can be transformed from a crime deterrent into a factor that fuels a cycle of crime and disorder by breaking up families, souring attitudes toward the criminal justice system and leaving communities populated with too many people hardened by the experience of going to prison.

Frenchtown provides abundant evidence for the thesis. There are few men available to volunteer in the youth programs at the Fourth Avenue Recreation Center. And every day, dozens of men line up in front of a soup kitchen run out of a small frame house in the heart of Frenchtown.

Robert J. Roeh, who runs the soup kitchen, estimates that four out of five of those who show up for the free meals have some type of prison record. "Going to prison keeps you locked up without bars for the rest of your life," he said. "We need to look at some other sanctions for people."

Dale Landry, a former police officer and Marine who heads Tallahassee's Neighborhood Justice Center, an alternative corrections program, said the volume of people going to prison has reached the point where it hurts the very communities it is intended to help.

"When a crime is committed, an offender should be held accountable," Landry said. "But the way we do it now, when a crime happens there is a damaged relationship between people who live in this community. We need to work on fixing these relationships. But when we send people away, those relationships remain broken, but we are left with a false sense of security that the prisons are working."

It is a problem recognized by local police, who have increasingly turned to community policing in an effort to mediate some of the social problems that often arise in conjunction with crime.

"We are looking at a lot of these issues," said Maj. George Creamer, head of the Tallahassee police operations bureau. "But if you are trying to clean up these neighborhoods and you don't arrest people who are breaking the law, then what do you do with them?"

In examining the impact of high incarceration rates in Tallahassee, researchers collected 1996 statistics on prison releases and admissions as well as demographic data from 103 Tallahassee neighborhoods. They also collected crime statistics for 1996 and 1997. The data then were mapped in order to compare incarceration rates with crime while controlling for socioeconomic factors.

While crime dropped in virtually all of the Tallahassee neighborhoods examined in the study, the rate of the decline in Frenchtown was one-third lower than in surrounding neighborhoods. The most telling difference between the neighborhoods, the researchers said, was that Frenchtown had a higher incarceration rate.

Other researchers caution that it is too early to come to definite conclusions. Bert Useem, a University of New Mexico sociologist who is embarking on a national study of incarceration rates and crime, said "it remains to be seen" whether taking a relatively large number of people out of a community has the effect of increasing crime.

"On the one hand, you have to be concerned about the number of people going into prison," he said. "But on the other hand, communities can become ravaged by crime. And the recent experience nationally has been these increases in incarceration rates and decreases in crime."

In any case, notes William J. Sabol, a researcher at the Urban Institute, "now you are getting many more people who previously were unconcerned asking about the unintended consequences of incarceration."

Those consequences are likely to grow with the surging incarceration rate. Swollen by increases in drug offenders and longer, mandatory prison sentences, the nation's prison population has risen every year since 1973 and has tripled since 1980.

This wave of incarceration has had a disproportionate effect on black neighborhoods. Justice Department statisticians project that more than one in four black males born this year will enter state or federal prison at some point during their lifetimes, compared with 16 percent of Hispanic males and 4.4 percent of white males.

"When you say that [almost] 30 percent of black males are projected to go to prison, that is a fact that no person who believes in freedom can be comfortable with," said Todd R. Clear, a John Jay criminologist working with Rose on the Frenchtown study.

The effect of high incarceration rates is intensified by the fact that they are often concentrated in relatively compact communities. A study in Hudson County, N.J., found that in 1995, one in 15 children experienced the trauma of having a parent go to jail for at least six months. In sections of South Central Los Angeles, an estimated 70 percent of the young men are in the clutches of the criminal justice system.

Researchers have found that men who have been in prison are less likely to marry, get good jobs or develop productive relationships with family members once they are back on the street. A broad survey done as part of the continuing study of the effects of incarceration in Frenchtown found that people who knew people who went to prison typically held lower opinions of the criminal justice system than others.

"Areas that have low crime rates are that way because people who live there do the job of providing social control," Rose said. "But people typically come back from prison more damaged and with less ability to contribute to society."

Clear said the social impact of high incarceration is most profound for the children and families of those sent to prison. "At some point, having some involvement with the prison system starts to look like part of their destiny," he said.

That's exactly what Frenchtown resident Laura Anderson is worried will happen to her 6-year-old son Xavier. His stepfather, John L. Anderson, is in prison for armed robbery; his biological father is in jail awaiting trial.

After her husband's arrest, Anderson and her son tumbled into homelessness and were forced to move in with friends and double up with in-laws. Finally, they settled in a dingy garden apartment back in Chattahoochee, her sleepy hometown located 40 miles west of Tallahassee. Xavier transferred to three different schools within a matter of months. He was left back in first grade. His teachers said he wouldn't concentrate in class.

But mostly Anderson worries about how her son will come to view the specter of prison. Once, when Xavier got into an argument with some young friends while playing in the breezeway, he came inside sobbing, fearful that the police were going to get him, she said. His mother said it is more than a childish fear.

"His biological father is incarcerated. His stepfather is incarcerated," she said. "If somebody does not come along as a mentor or something and show him a different way, he is going to think that jail is the place where he will ultimately be too."

CAPTION: PRISON POPULATION (This graphic was not available)

CAPTION: Laura Anderson and husband, John L. Anderson, kiss via window after June visit at the Leon County Jail in Tallahassee, where he was imprisoned on an armed robbery charge.

CAPTION: Laura Anderson talks via telephone with her husband, John L. Anderson, during a June visit at Leon County Jail in Tallahassee, where he has been held on an armed robbery charge. Above, she comforts son Xavier Eutsay, 6, in the apartment they have settled into in Chattahoochee, about 40 miles away. Because both Xavier's biological father and stepfather have been jailed, Laura Anderson fears he will come to see prison as his destiny also.