The level of violence and the resultant homicide rate in the District of Columbia keep escalating, and the residents of the city -- in fact, the citizenry of the entire nation -- wonder if the tide will ever stop rising. In 1987 this city registered a total of 225 homicides. In 1988 the number rose to 369, and our nation's capital gained the unenviable distinction of being the murder capital of the country.

Sadly, the notoriety gained in 1988 was retained in 1989, when the District again had the highest per capita homicide rate in the country. And already this year 372 people have been struck down by homicides as of Oct. 15, well ahead of the murder rate recorded in the city in 1989. This toll was reached after one of the bloodiest weekends in the city's history, during which 12 people were killed in less than 72 hours.

Americans shudder at the thought of experiencing a projected record of more than 23,000 homicides this year. Citizens of the District seek to find solutions to the carnage, but the city's political leadership refuses to consider the importance of one principle that has controlled human behavior since life was created.

Punishment, or at least the threat of it, has always been used as a deterrent against socially unacceptable behavior. And the severity of the punishment that can be imposed for aberrant behavior reflects the values of a society. We say in this country that human life is valued more than anything else. Yet consider the sentencing structure in the District of Columbia for murder and decide for yourself whether the punishment available for murderers in this city reflects the rhetoric we use to depict the sanctity of human life.

Under existing law, a person convicted of second-degree murder -- which is a malicious killing committed without premeditation and deliberation -- can be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. However, whether this maximum sentence is imposed is a matter of discretion for the sentencing judge. And even if the maximum sentence is given to a convicted killer, the sentence will in all probability not reflect the actual time the individual will spend in prison.

The "Good Time Credit Act," enacted by the D.C. Council in 1987, authorizes the reduction of sentences imposed by judges, which means that if "good time credit" is awarded, the perpetrator of a second-degree murder in the District of Columbia will serve only about 10 years in prison for the malicious taking of a human life. Even more disturbing is the reality that "good time credit" is not earned by inmates but is automatically awarded to them upon their arrivzl at the penal institution where the sentence is to be served. Thus, "good time credit" means a killer's sentence is not reduced because of exemplary conduct or because of attempts by the offender to rehabilitate himself, but merely because the sentence has been imposed.

When the "Good Time Credit Act" became law, it was thought that the statute did not apply to first-degree murder -- which is a malicious killing committed with premeditation and deliberation. However, in a decision rendered by a judge on the city's federal trial court, the act was deemed to also apply to first-degree murder and therefore even to cold-blooded murders that are planned and carried out in the most sadistic manner. Thus, if the federal judge's decision is upheld on appeal, the maximum sentence any murderer can expect to serve for a murder committed in the District of Columbia -- since the first-degree murder statute provides for the harshest penalty for taking a human life -- is approximately 13 years. And even if it is ultimately ruled that an individual convicted of first-degree murder is not entitled to good time credit, he can expect to serve only 20 years for his deed.

Is this enough punishment to exact from someone who has taken a human life? In some cases, because of mitigating circumstances, yes. But mitigating circumstances are not always present, and I submit that there are many cases where a prison sentence restricted by the law as it is now is the equivalent of a slap on the wrist when compared with the horror of the crime. Just consider one murder case tried before me when I served as a judge on the city's trial court.

The victim, one of this city's finest citizens, was in her home when a man entered the house through a basement window he had broken. Responding to the sound of the breaking glass, the woman was confronted by the man in her dining room. A violent struggle ensued, and the man bit off part of the woman's breast. She was then anally sodomized, stabbed repeatedly, strangled and finally rolled up in an area carpet and set on fire.

The circumstances surrounding the woman's death amounted to one of the most sadistic killings I ever encountered during the many years I served as a judge and a lawyer. Because of the cruel and vicious nature of the crime, I concluded that the harshest punishment provided by law was warranted. The maximum sentence was therefore imposed, but because of the sentencing structure in this city for murder, the man who committed this despicable offense will be eligible for release when he is still a relatively young man. Is it fair that release be a possibility for the man who deprived the victim of a person's most precious gift, and in doing so, made the victim's last minutes alive a living hell?

From the many community meetings I have attended, I believe I can safely say that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the District of Columbia would respond that freedom should not be a prospect for the killer I have described. Yet in the face of a continually escalating murder rate and gangland style executions such as the ones committed last weekend, the powers that be in this city refuse to make things tougher for people who take the lives of others. In fact, they have even made things easier for killers by enacting the "Good Time Credit Act."

Both of our neighboring states authorize sentences of life in prison without parole and also the imposition of the death penalty in the most egregious cases. Isn't it time that murderers who kill in the District of Columbia be told that their crimes are considered as serious as murders committed in Maryland and Virginia?

Some will argue that to provide for such sentences in the District will not deter people from committing murders -- a position I do not accept. However, even if that argument is correct, the lack of the deterrence argument begs the question. Equally important, I submit, is what should be appropriate punishment for murder. This issue must be reassessed by our city leaders, and those who seek elected office in November must be challenged on what their position will be if elected. Else the diminished value now given to human life in this city by some -- which I submit is partially due to the sentences which can be given to convicted murderers -- will continue to deteriorate.

New political leadership should come a new appreciation that the punishment for murder must be made to fit the crime.

The writer, a former D.C. Superior Court judge, is associate director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy