TWO NIGHTS before he was to be married, Vincent Chin and three friends went out to celebrate in a Detroit bar. During the course of the evening, a fight broke out between Mr. Chin and his friends and two white men. An eyewitness said that Mr. Chin, a Chinese-American, was mistaken for a Japanese, and that hard times in the motor city have increased racial animosity toward Asians in general. But whatever the cause of the dispute, no one denies that Mr. Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by the two white men.

Both assailants were charged with second-degree murder, which was reduced in a plea bargain to manslaughter, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. But neither man was to spend a single night in jail, for Judge Charles Kaufman freed them on probation after each paid a fine of $3,000. Listen to the judge's reasons for imposing such a preposterous sentence: "We are talking here about a man who has held down a responsible job with the same company for 17 or 18 years, and his son who is employed and is a part-time student. These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else. I just didn't think that putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society. You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal."

One person who wasn't surprised by this kind of thinking was Wayne County prosecutor William Cahalan. Unfortunately, he said, this sentence is not at all unusual. He cites three recent cases: a woman was convicted of stabbing her lover to death, inflicting 19 knife wounds. A policeman was convicted of beating to death a prisoner in his custody. A merchant admitted killing an 8-year-old after the child had stolen grapes. In all three cases, the killers walked out of court on probation.

These cases are strong evidence that two reforms being considered by courts across the country are badly needed. The first is the establishment of a set of victims' rights. It would have been much more difficult for Judge Kaufman to focus his concern exclusively on the killers in the Chin case if the victim's survivors had had an opportunity to make a statement before sentencing. The second is the adoption of sentencing guidelines that force judges to consider not only the record and the prospects of the offender, but also the nature of the crime. Guidelines used by Maryland courts, for example, would have produced a prison sentence in the Chin case even if the defendants had no prior criminal record. Guidelines minimize the chance for sentence disparity, clarify the likely penalties that will be meted out and mandate the consideration of the broader interests of society in addition to the welfare of the convicted criminal. Such standards narrow discretion but greatly reduce the potential for quixotic decisions. They would be as useful in Michigan as they are in Maryland.