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In apartheid South Africa, at times when political prisoners were subjected to harsh treatment, they were still allowed to earn university degrees by corres- pondence.

For the U.S. Congress in 1994, that idea is too enlightened. One section of the omnibus crime bill just signed by President Clinton forbids the awarding of Pell grants for higher education to anyone in prison. That will just about end the possibility of prisoners, who are mostly poor, earning college credits.Is that provision of the bill a blow against crime? To the contrary. Studies show that prisoners who do college work are less than half as likely as other inmates to commit new crimes after their release.

No, Congress inserted the provision to show the public how "tough" it could be - how mean, how nasty. The realities of fighting crime had nothing to do with it - or with many other parts of the crime bill.

Consider what the bill does about mandatory minimum sentences, which prison officials and judges and other experts regard as a distorting and self-defeating trend in our law.

Congress in recent years has fixed minimum sentences for many drug offenses. Judges have lost their right - their duty - to consider the particular facts of the crime and the offender. They are required to put many non-violent, first-time drug offenders away for 5 or 10 years.

More than 100,000 new drug offenders are being committed to state and federal prisons every year. The inevitable result is overcrowding of those prisons. Some states solve the problem by releasing other prisoners - including those the public rightly fears most, men who committed violent crimes.

The new bill moves to lengthen state prison terms as well. It does so by offering states large sums to build new prisons - but only if they promise to make serious offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentenced times. Most states now release prisoners after they serve a far smaller portion of their sentences. To get the federal money the states will have to make their prisons even more overcrowded.

Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., got into the bill a section allowing federal prosecutors to disclose at the trial of sex crimes the fact that the defendant was previously charged (not convicted) with a sexual offense, civil or criminal, no matter how long ago. So someone falsely accused - and that does happen - would be branded.

The better-known provisions of the crime bill, such as "three strikes, you're out," have their own flaws. How did such a misbegotten piece of legislation become law?

The answer is simple: politics. Democrats wanted to take the crime issue away from Republicans. Republicans responded by sounding "tougher."

Since 1970 the number of inmates in American prisons has quadrupled. We have now passed South Africa for the title of most prisoners per capita. None of this has had a measurable effect on our shockingly high level of crime.