CRIMINAL COURTS around the country are moving toward sentencing guidelines to narrow the wide disparity that sometimes occurs when different judges view similar crimes. A federal sentencing commission has sent proposed guidelines to Congress for review, and in this city Superior Court judges are evaluating proposed standards. The job requires deciding which aspects of a crime should be considered aggravating or mitigating -- the use of a weapon, for example, or that the victim has been compensated -- and which facts about an offender, such as prior convictions or extreme youth, should increase or reduce a penalty.

If the range of the sentence is too flexible, or the elements of the offense too broadly defined, terrible abuses of discretion can occur. Consider the case of John Powell, an inmate at the Lakeland Correctional Institution in Florida. Serving a sentence for bad checks and robbery, he was eligible for parole in January 1988, and last winter, he was on a daily work release program. On Christmas Eve, he was caught trying to smuggle eight cans of beer into the prison. In May, he was convicted of a felony for bringing contraband into prison, and now he has been sentenced to 15 years in prison, to be served after completion of his current sentence and without possibility of parole.

Florida does have sentencing guidelines but, as this case demonstrates, they have been drawn too broadly. Mr. Powell's beer blunder, for example, is in the same category as the smuggling of weapons or drugs into prison, crimes for which substantial penalties would be reasonable. And the penalty could have been anywhere from no time to 27 years. It is difficult to understand why a judge would choose to be so severe, especially when parole is no longer available. But it is clear that the very abuses that sentencing guidelines were supposed to cure can persist when the new system is not carefully constructed.

The only good news in this terrible tale is that under the Florida guidelines statute all sentences are subject to appeal. David Henderson of the Polk County Public Defender's office says an appeal will be filed but that it will probably be a couple of years before it is decided. The sentencing judge, if he has an ounce of mercy or common sense, should reconsider and substantially reduce the penalty