WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Mayor David Dinkins of New York knows that his predecessor, Ed Koch, spent more than a billion dollars on new jails, only to see the inmate population triple in a decade, even as the city suffered a record number of homicides in 1990. Yet Mayor Dinkins has acquiesced in a scheme to spend more than a billion dollars for 5,500 more prison beds.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has become the fastest-growing element of the Justice Department budget. It wants a 24 per cent increase, to $2.1 billion, to run federal prisons in fiscal 1992, including $314 million with which to build 3,600 new beds at $87,000 per bed.
For months I have screamed that ''We don't need new prisons, we need a Job Corps of the kind sponsored by the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.'' Then someone told me about the best of best-kept secrets in America: The Job Corps is 27 years old, functioning marvelously, but woefully underfunded and sort of ''hiding out'' in an era when visionless politicians curse the social programs that were the brainchildren of liberal Democrats.
Tucked away in a niche some 25 minutes from my home is the Potomac Job Corps Center where 450 poor, at-risk youngsters find refuge from crime, drugs, hopelessness and are learning trades that almost guarantee them bright lives.
At the Potomac center I met a 17-year-old black girl who had dropped out of school after getting pregnant. She thought that was the end of her world until someone steered her into the Job Corps where she has become a skilled bricklayer.
A 17-year-old boy from Norfolk told me he had been arrested for peddling drugs when he was hopelessly jobless and that he ''would have died in one of the drug wars over turf except that I could run real fast.'' He ran all the way to the Potomac Job Corps Center where he has become skilled at carpentry.
At the call of John Peoples, the center's director, these youngsters, aged 16 to 21, mostly black, but with significant numbers of whites and Hispanics, pour forth a moving gush of horror stories about what would have happened had they not been rescued by the Job Corps.
Instead, they become professional painters, master computers, learn skills they once thought beyond their grasp. I begin to think that we aren't going to have a generation of kids lost to crime, drugs, ignorance, despair. And then I see the grim facts about how many of this nation's youngsters are being helped by the Job Corps.
The agency has a piddling budget of $867.5 million, which enables it to reach only 68,000 of America's estimated 5 million impoverished young men and women, 441,000 of them designated ''seriously at risk.'' You see why we have the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, and spend some $16 billion a year to incarcerate more than a million people in our prisons and local jails. We spend next to nothing to help desperately at-risk children to avoid the lockups.
California has 601,268 impoverished youth; only 4,225 can get Job Corps slots. Only 1,037 of Illinois' 227,395 poor youth are in the Job Corps. Nationwide only 2 per cent of the eligible, needy young men and women are getting even a chance of rescue by a program that is doing great, compassionate, nation-building things that can never be achieved by a jail or a prison.
The mood of America is so driven by vengeance and revenge that the people will focus on expanding the death penalty. They think it proper to incarcerate 454,724 black men and Hispanics -- way out of proportion to their percentage of our population. But tragically few Americans will say that the money would be better spent on the public schools and in expanding the Job Corps.
A coalition of congressmen, businessmen, labor-union leaders and caring citizens has mounted a national campaign to expand the Job Corps and to make the White House and the country aware that it is a cheap, nation-building alternative to prisons, and more prisons.
This coalition is asking the Congress and President Bush to allocate a modest $1.16 billion (half the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' budget) for fiscal 1992 -- a billion dollars just to maintain services at the 106 centers that now exist nationwide, plus $160 million to launch a ''50-50'' Job Corps expansion that would add 50 more centers over 10 years and increase by 50 percent the number of deprived youngsters who can get Job Corps help.
This is such a small expansion of Job Corps centers, compared with the needs of 5 million poor youths, that it will seem shameful to some readers. We must remember that this may be all that is politically possible in ''hard times.''
But the American mood can change. The people who took me to the Potomac Job Corps Center were not Job Corps workers with bleeding hearts. They were members of the Home Builders Institute, acting out of self-interest: They need the painters, carpenters, brick-layers, computer experts that the Job Corps is turning out for their labor force in the 21st century.
It has been established that for every dollar spent on a Job Corps trainee, Uncle Sam saves $1.46 in welfare, criminal apprehension and incarceration costs. When do we wise up to the truth that Job Corps Centers are social blessings, while prisons are abominations of surrender and hatred? When?
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.