WASHINGTON -- After a decade in which both the drug trade and police sweeps expanded with similar zeal, 41 percent of the black men in the District of Columbia aged 18 through 35 were enmeshed in the criminal justice system on any given day last year, according to a study made public yesterday.
"In effect, the social safety net has been replaced by a dragnet," said Jerome G. Miller, president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, which conducted the study. The non-profit group promotes alternatives to imprisonment.
The study found that in 1991 14.6 percent of Washington's black men in this age group were in prison, 20.6 percent were on probation or parole and 5.6 percent were out on bond or being sought by the police. Mr. Miller said the vast majority had committed felonies.
As many as 70 percent of black men in Washington are arrested by the time they turn 35, the study estimated, and about 85 percent are arrested at some point in their lives. A large percentage of those arrests are on misdemeanor charges, Mr. Miller said.
The numbers -- higher than those reported in similar studies -- quickly set off a debate that goes to the heart of America's vexing inner-city problems: Is society turning many of its young black men into criminals, or are these men doing it themselves? Or as City Council Chairman John Wilson contended yesterday in discussing the study, are "both things occurring?"
Mr. Miller said the study found that an emphasis in the 1980s on more arrests and mandatory sentences had not only failed to curb crime but might also be making matters worse by exposing young men to the brutal effects of arrest and prison.
"We're criminalizing people we should be treating in other ways," he argued. "The majority of people we march through the system are people who have other problems -- the retarded, the mentally ill, the alcoholic, the homeless, the minor offenders."
Others concurred in calling the numbers depressingly high but said they saw few immediate options for reducing the role of criminal justice.
"What laws does he propose to repeal?" asked Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who has written widely on drug laws. "If you said to people in the neighborhoods, 'Should we stop arresting the crack dealers?' I think they'd say no."
While there have been similar national studies of black men and criminal justice, yesterday's is the first that focuses on a single major city.
In 1989, the Sentencing Project, a Washington research and advocacy group, found that almost one in four of the nation's black men aged 20 through 29 were in prison, on probation or on parole. A year later, two private groups found a similar pattern holding true for black men in New York state. There, 23 percent of black men in the same age group were incarcerated or on
probation or parole.
In arriving at the higher number of 41 percent, Mr. Miller's study not only focused on one city but used a more expansive definition; it included black men who were free on bond awaiting trial and those who were being sought for arrest.
The report found that on an average day 21,800 of the district's 53,377 young black men were involved with the criminal justice system. Of those 7,800 were in jail or prison; 6,000 were on local probation; 3,700 were on local parole; and 1,300 were on federal probation or parole.
The report estimated that another 3,000 were awaiting trial on bond, or being pursued on felony or misdemeanor warrants.
Mr. Miller arrived at these numbers by taking the actual number of people in prison, or on probation or parole, and estimating the percentage who were black men between 18 and 35.
He said he based his estimates on a 2-year-old study for the district's correction department that broke down the prison population by age, race and gender. "Those figures don't change much in two years," he said.
Mr. Kleiman, the Harvard professor, said he thought Mr. Miller's numbers would hold true in other cities with many poor people, like Cleveland or Detroit, but not those like Miami where city limits include large suburban, middle-class areas.
"A lot of this depends on where you draw the boundaries, where the black middle class lives," he said.
In an interview Thursday night with WRC-TV, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly said, "I know that we've got a staggering problem."
But she added, "There are too many successful well-adjusted young people, young black men in this city for me to believe that  percent is a reliable number."
That sentiment was markedly different from the one expressed by Mr. Wilson, the council chairman.
"I'm not skeptical of the numbers at all," he said.
"It doesn't seem that whatever the programs we come up with there's any improvement in the situation at all."