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Which do you think can win the fight against crime: midnight basketball leagues and similar "prevention" programs; or putting more cops on the streets?

If you're liberal you probably said If you're conservative you probably said But if you'd put aside your ideological baggage and examine the evidence you'd have to say none of the above.Start with basketball. There's nothing wrong with giving boys some extra exercise and entertainment. But if a kid doesn't believe it's wrong to act against another individual or his property, if he doesn't believe that such actions are likely to bring swift and severe punishment, what's to stop him from taking his last free throw and then going out onto the street and taking some old lady's purse?

As for more cops on the street: "As hard as it may be to believe," writes crim-inologist Richard Moran, "there is no direct relationship between the number of police and the crime rate in a community. Although police departments were established in America more than 150 years ago, no research study has been able to demonstrate that adding more police lowers the crime rate."

So what does work? You won't like the answer but here it is: long-term incarceration. The primary purpose of such incarceration is not to punish. The primary purpose is not to rehabilitate. The primary purpose is to keep criminals from committing more crimes.

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, four out of every 10 felony arrests involve people already on parole, probation or out on bail. In other words, we could slash crime substantially and reliably if we would just keep these people off the streets longer.

Would a greater probability of long-term incarceration also deter crime? It might. If you live in a large American city and you commit a serious crime, the chances are one in 20 that you'll go to jail. In a really big town like New York the chances are less than one in a hundred of going up the river for a felony.

And those who do end up in the slam-mer don't stay there very long. Most convicted criminals serve only about one-third of their sentences. Princeton political scientist John J. DiIulio Jr. notes that "on average, rapists spend barely five years in prison; robbers spend 3.9 years; assaulters and burglars spend barely two years" and even most convicted murders "spend well under 10 years behind bars."

Some people will respond by saying that it costs too much to keep people in prison. But researchers like DiIulio have crunched the numbers: "It costs society about twice as much to let a criminal roam the streets as it does to keep him behind bars. . . . It costs society hundreds of billions of dollars each year to heal the economic and human wounds wrought by steet crime."

One last note: Some conservatives insist that people commit crimes because they are bad. Some liberals argue that people commit crimes because they can't find good jobs or because Madison Ave. has brainwashed them into coveting expensive sneakers or because they're bored and have nothing else to do.

A more credible explanation is that people commit crimes because it serves their self-interest. Those of us who do not commit crimes refrain from doing so because we have a sense of right and wrong and/or because we fear punishment.

Maybe someday someone will come up with a government program to provide everybody with a conscience and make everybody give a damn about consequences. But until then, the least that law-abiding citizens should be able to expect is that people without these attributes will be kept off the streets and safely under lock and key.