AS A LAWYER, I know what I'm supposed to say in these situations.

That hunting down a suspected rapist and administering "street justice" is wrong. That vigilantism undermines our constitutional protections. That we are innocent until proven guilty - in a court of law, not at the curb.

After three years studying the law and more than 15 practicing it, I get it. We can't take the law into our own hands.

And yet there's a part of me that wanted to pump my fist in the air and scream "Yes!" when I heard what the Kensington residents did to Jose Carrasquillo, the man who allegedly raped an 11-year-old girl on her way to school this week.

Call the neighborhood residents savages. But beyond the issue of guilt and innocence, and whether the wrong person was victimized (if you don't count an innocent child), there's something else at play here. And that's the fact that a neighborhood came together on a June afternoon and became their daughter's keeper.

For years, we've lamented the fact that Philadelphians have become so afraid of or so immunized to violence that they consistently look the other way when crimes are committed. T-shirts flaunt the "Don't snitch" mentality, parents brazenly coach their kids to "forget" what happened on the witness stand, people who stand next to friends shot in broad daylight develop temporary blindness.

The cowardice would be comical if it weren't so tragic.

But here we had neighbors who, informed by police that there was physical evidence linking Carrasquillo to the crime, executed a rather passionate citizens' arrest.

The lawyer in me rebels and says, "This is horrible, we can't revert to being Tombstone-on-the-Schuylkill every time police issue the description of a suspect. Due process needs to be followed."

Of course it does, otherwise we'd have 1.4 million justice systems in the City of Brotherly Love - with some of them definitely not so brotherly.

But let's look at this from another perspective. Carrasquillo may not have raped that innocent child, but he's got a nice rap sheet in his closet. Drugs, parole violations, all sorts of dandy things that make you wonder why he's out on the streets in the first place.

And leaving aside the dysfunctional character of our parole system, you have to wonder just how much a community is supposed to take before it reaches the breaking point. How many children physically butchered and psychologically maimed, how many of our elderly terrorized in their homes, how many promising young men played like losing chess pieces before we acknowledge that street justice - despite our best instincts - becomes an attractive alternative?

I bet that the men who hunted down Carrasquillo and beat him into unconsciousness were intimately aware of the flaws in our legal system, flaws that our next D.A. better address with more than election-year lip service.

That they chose to use their fists instead of letting us lawyers and judges do our jobs says more about our own shortcomings than about their rush to judgment. If they and the victim's family had any hope or sense that the system would have worked efficiently, it's unlikely Carrasquillo would be in a hospital bed recovering from his wounds.

But then the lawyer in me pipes up again and reminds me that however flawed our system might be, it's better than all the others.

Or is it? We can look down our noses at Third World justice where they cut off the hands of convicted thieves, but how about our own inability to stop repeat offenders from terrorizing the innocent? How about our unwillingness to enforce the death penalty for those who have been fully and fairly adjudged guilty of heinous crimes? Or our unwavering belief that it is better to release 10 guilty men than to convict an innocent one?

There's a reality here that the high-minded ideals that are so often divorced from the reality of the street fail to fully satisfy.

IT'S FINE for lawyers and judges and parole officers to pontificate about "the rules this" and "due process that" and the rights of the accused, but how do we explain to the people in Kensington and Olney and Point Breeze that this doesn't mean their children will be safe?

I guess I'm feeling schizophrenic these days. Part of me, the part that paid a lot of money to Villanova Law School, winces when I hear what happened to Carrasquillo.

But the other part very much understands. *

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.