American taxpayers had better brace themselves for a new assault on their pocketbooks in the name of fighting crime.

This week, President Bush went before a "crime summit" of U.S. law officers to call for stronger penalties against violent crime.After Bush's sweeping victory in the Persian Gulf, it's going to be harder for Congress to keep turning a deaf ear to the White House's demands - particularly with polls showing most Americans support a tougher law-and-order policy.

But taxpayers don't always realize that tougher laws accelerate the need to build more jails and prisons. What's more, there are limits to how much further and faster we can go in this direction.

As it is now, the United States already has the dubious distinction of imprisoning more of its citizens per capita than any other country. During the 1980s, our prison population more than doubled to a total of one-million, with the result that 426 of every 100,000 Americans are now behind bars. The bill for keeping them there comes to $16 billion a year.

That's why the Bush administration's call for tougher penalties should be answered not just with more prisons but with a new look at possible alternatives to incarceration.

Among those alternatives should be increased use of electronic "bracelets" for home incarceration and increased use of parole, which would require increased supervision of parolees by probation officers.

Moreover, how about considering the possible use of boot camps in which sentences of young offenders are reduced to a few months in exchange for their submitting to a program of military discipline and remedial programs?

As long as America keeps getting bigger and more violent, it can't entirely avoid building more prisons. But let's be sure to pursue all the options. Just as crime has many causes, it also can have many cures. Prison is only one of them.