WARNER JENKINS was convicted in federal court last month of accepting bribes in connection with his work as a permit examiner in the city's Building and Zoning Regulation Administration. He walked out of court proclaiming, "I feel great," after Judge Aubrey Robinson refused to impose a jail sentence for his crime. Others--including the prosecutors and The Washington Post reporters whose investigation led to the indictment of Mr. Jenkins--were less pleased. All the time and effort involved in bringing to justice a public official charged with corruption resulted in probation for the guilty man. While disappointing, that sentence could at least be explained by the fact that Warner Jenkins was a first offender and his crime--though it constituted a breach of public trust--was not a violent one.

It is much more difficult to understand the rationale behind the decision of two Superior Court judges who recently refused to send to prison two men who had, in fits of rage, shot to death total strangers.

On March 31, Judge Eugene Hamilton ordered Dalton Hawkins, a 25-year-old cabdriver, to serve five years on probation after he had been convicted of murdering a motorist with whom he had argued. According to the testimony of an eyewitness, Mr. Hawkins had provoked the argument and had threatened to get even with the victim. He surely did. He shot him dead. Judge Hamilton, sympathetic to the killer's plea that he was under strain at the time of the crime because he was working three jobs at once, refused the prosecutors' request for a jail sentence on this, Mr. Hawkins' first offense. Six days later, it appeared as if some editor had goofed and run the same story again on the front page. Thursday's headline, "D.C. Cabdriver Given Probation for '81 Slaying," seemed vaguely familiar. But no, on closer inspection, this was another cabdriver (coincidentally), another killing and anotherjudge. This time, Judge W. Byron Sorrell had set free one William Lewis, who admitted having shot to death a man who had recently argued with his son over a traffic incident. Mr. Lewis had already been twice convicted for unlawful possession of a gun. He is 57 years old and, according to court records, suffers from gout, asthma, dizziness and chronic alcoholism. His age and illness motivated Judge Sorrell to reject the prosecutor's plea for a prison sentence, even one spent in a federal hospital facility in Springfield, Mo. Citizens may well wonder, however, whether confinement isn't a more prudent response to a killer who is a chronic alcoholic, has unlawfully possessed a gun and has a criminal record and a terrible temper.

It's all well and good for judges to take into consideration the special problems and needs of convicted killers at sentencing time. They have an obligation, though, to keep in mind at least two other factors: public safety and the need to do justice by imposing a penalty that bears some proportion to the offense. The punishment must fit not just the criminal, but the crime, and probation for violent homicide is hardly ever a good fit.