UP IN THE BOSTON AREA, from which I have just returned, there is a terrific new system of justice evolving for people who have been so blessed in their lives as to have obtained a medical degree. Up there, it seems, there are different rules for doctors -- and if, as one doctor put it, he did do something "indiscreet," well, one man's felony is another man's indiscretion.

The latest chapter in the continuing saga of dual justice in America involves three doctors convicted of raping a nurse. According to accounts in the Boston Globe, the four people had attended a party last September and went on to the beach house owned by the family of one of the doctors. There, according to the defense version of events, the doctors had relations with the nurse who they claimed was a willing participant. According to the nurse's version, the doctors forced her to have intercourse. She reported the incident to a rape crisis center and to police within the day after it happened. The jury of seven men and five women believed the nurse, a rather remarkable event in and of itself.

The men were originally charged with kidnaping and aggravated rape, a charge that carries a life sentence and is used in circumstances in which the victim is severely beaten or raped by more than one person. The jury convicted them on a lesser charge of rape that carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. But Judge Walter E. Steele of the Suffolk Superior. Court gave them six months and a year's probation, which is the kind of sentence you could expect to get if you got caught skimming the till in your office, although it may even be a trifle light for that. A federal judge in Baltimore this week sentenced a bank employe to three years for embezzling $30,000. Six months is not the kind of sentence you could expect to get in say, the District of Columbia if you are a black blue-collar worker convicted of rape. The turnover rate for rapists at Lorton is not quite that quick, nor is it in Boston. In arguing for a three- to five-year jail term for the doctors, Asst. Dist. Attorney Timothy O'Neil said the average sentence for a rapist in Suffolk County is 13 years.

But a Boston lawyer had an answer for that discrepancy. As with so much else in Boston, it seems that what matters with rape is who you know. "No matter how strident one is about the crime of rape," attorney Harvey A. Silverglate told the Globe, "no one with half a brain would compare this rape -- where four people knew each other -- to the rape of a woman who is dragged off the street with a knife to a throat. Rape cases are like apples and oranges."

It is better, apparently, to be raped by someone you know. And infinitely better to be raped, apparently, by a doctor you know. It is better to be raped by someone who is rich or may be rich than by someone who is poor. An educated, professional man raping a woman is somehow going to be less brutal and violent than a nonprofessional.

The relatives of the doctors and the doctors themselves, instead of being grateful for the light sentences, expressed anger at the very idea that the doctors might have to do some time in the slammer for gang-raping a woman. The father of one doctor, who also is a doctor, portrayed the men as victims.

"The stigma, the emotion, the trauma, is something you can't forget," he told the Globe, using the very words thousands of rape victims have used to describe their ordeal. He described his son as "depressed, and he's feeling anger, anger, anger."

Another of the doctors talked about his mother's efforts to put him through medical school and told the court: "What has she got now -- a convict for a son?" Whose fault is that?

Lawyers for the doctors had argued for them to be sentenced to community service. One male lawyer -- who has presumably never shared in the female sexual experience -- even went so far as to characterize the rape as "benign a situation as possible."

Sentencing criminals involves weighing a number of principles, including punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence. When professional people do something wrong, the cost to them may come not only in loss of freedom but in loss of their profession. Hence, lawyers can be disbarred and doctors can lose their licenses, but that's professional punishment. And while there is much hand wringing on the part of the lawyers, doctors and their families about what this will do to their careers, any professional sanction is quite separate from anything meted out by the legal system. That is also something the doctors should have thought about that night in the beach house.

A lawyer for one of the doctors, the same lawyer who characterized the rape as "benign," said he saw no good reason for sending these men to jail. Would he have said that about three carpenters convicted of rape?

There is, of course, every good reason for sending the doctors to jail. They have been convicted of raping someone.They should be punished. Maybe they'll get rehabilitated and won't do it again. Maybe, had they been given the kind of sentence mere mortal men would have gotten, this case would have served as a deterrent to others who are tempted to take advantage of an acquaintance. This is no negligible number of people; according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 18 percent of all rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victim.

Technically the doctors got three to five years with all but six months suspended. They are free pending appeal. It is not at all clear that they will even lose their medical licenses. That they were convicted at all says something good about juries in Boston, but that they were sentenced to so little time tells you something about double standards in America.

Punishment isn't supposed to fit the criminal. It's supposed to fit the crime.