Circuit court judges in Montgomery and Prince George's counties have begun a one-year experiment in which they must follow guidelines for sentencing in criminal cases or explain why they have not.

The guidelines, developed by a panel of state judges, in some cases suggest lower sentences than commonly imposed for such crimes as rape or breaking and entering, and higher sentences for first-time drug offenses.

The program has been used by judges in Montgomery, Prince George's, and Baltimore counties since last month.

The proposals were designed to reduce unwarranted variation in sentences for the same crime, but some judges already fear the suggestions could become straitjackets.

"The day you take judges' human reaction out of sentencing, it's 1984 and we may as well have computers instead of judges," said Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia.

In drug cases, the guidelines say first offenders charged with possession of a drug other than marijuana can be sentenced to six months to two years -- an increase over the commonly imposed sentence of 30 days.

First offenders who broke into houses or forged checks have in the past usually received sentences of one or more years in jail, according to the Prince George's County state's attorney's office. Under the guidelines, persons convicted in similar cases would simply be put on probation or given a maxiumum sentence of three months in jail.

The guidelines, which also are being used in Baltimore and Harford counties, were developed by 10 judges working for two years under a $270,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice. The judges chose the guideline sentences by analyzing 1,800 randomly selected 1979 cases in Maryland.

Under the guidelines, a judge gives the crime a certain score, based on its seriousness, whether a victim was injured, whether a weapon was used, and whether the victim was especially vulnerable -- that is, a child or an elderly person. The murder of a 4-year-old boy, for example, would result in a score of 13, the highest score.

Before determining the sentence, the judge also must give the offender a certain score, based on whether he was a juvenile delinquent, had an adult criminal record, or a prior conviction for the same offense.

To determine the sentence, the judge must then consult a chart containing "offense scores" and "offender scores," and find the guideline sentence in a box on the chart. When judges decide to impose sentences harsher or more lenient than the ones suggested by the guidelines, they must provide a written explanation for their decision in the case jacket.

During the past month, Judge Femia has given at least two sentences that were not within the suggested guidelines. In one case, he put on probation a woman, Gertude Waiters, who pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of her husband. The sentencing guideline recommended that she receive nine to 16 years, but Femia could see no point in such a sentence.

"This woman was 48 years old and her husband came home and was beating her pregnant daughter and was going to beat her," Femia said. "He had been beating the whole family for years."

In another case, he sentenced a rapist to life plus 33 years in prison even though the sentencing guideline suggested he receive only eight to 15 years. The rape was a "vicious act of degradation," Femia wrote in justifying his sentence. The rapist, Edward Glenn Dunn of Takoma Park, had threatened a woman at knifepoint, forced her across the parking lot into his car, raped her and cut her head with his knife, according to court records.

Dunn's lawyer, Theodore L. Mast, has asked for reconsideration of the sentence on the grounds that the sentence was a "startling deviation from the guideline sentence inasmuch as rape is, by definition, a vicious act of degradation.".

At the end of the year-long experiment, the administrative judge's office of the Maryland State Court of Appeals will evaluate the sentencing guidelines program to determine whether it should be extended statewide.