TWO AND ONE-HALF years in prison may seem to many a harsh penalty for violating the law requiring young men to register for the draft. That was the sentence handed down in San Diego on Monday to Benjamin Sasway, one of the first men prosecuted by the government for violating this law. It is a much harsher penalty than the suspended sentence given in Roanoke to another admitted violator of this law, Enten Eller (that sentence may be changed in November if Mr. Eller refuses to register by then, but even in that case he is unlikely to get a long prison sentence). It seems to us, however, that both sentences make sense, despite the harshness of one and the disparity between it and the other.

For these are not identical cases. Mr. Eller professes a conscientious objection to war based on religious belief that, he clearly persuaded the judge, is sincere. The draft law in the past has provided special treatment for such conscientious objectors, and, while the registration law does not do so, it is perfectly appropriate for a judge to consider such beliefs in setting an offender's sentence. Mr. Sasway's objections, on the other hand, are political. "Registration," he says, "leads to a draft and a draft leads to involvement in unjust, Vietnam sort of wars." Perhaps -- although one familiar with the history of World War II, for example, might question whether the relationship between drafts and unjust wars is as simple as this 21-year-old defendant believes. But the point is not the wisdom of this young man's views but whether he has a right to violate a criminal statute because he believes the policy it establishes is mistaken.

The answer, in a democratic society with a government that itself must obey the law, is no. The government was right to bring this case, and the judge was right to impose the harsh 2 1/2-year sentence. The question now is whether this example will cause those young men who failed to register out of strong political conviction or out of a vagrant sense of grievance to have second thoughts. We hope so: the government's interest here is not to fill the jails but to see that a law, clearly constitutional and passed by a democratically elected Congress, is obeyed. Those who feel that the draft registration law is pernicious or simply silly then will have the chance to persuade Congress and congressional candidates of the wisdom of their views.