KELLY BURKE got off easy. The WRC-TV reporter pleaded guilty to a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol following an accident that killed a Poolesville man, Dennis Crouch. The penalty imposed by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge William Cave was a $500 fine, two years unsupervised probation and an order to produce a documentary on the consequences of drunk driving. The disposition of this case is reminiscent of courtroom practice 10 years ago, before Mothers Against Drunk Driving, before highway checkpoints, before get-tough laws. It's no wonder that MADD and Mr. Crouch's family were surprised and dismayed by this sentence.

In the last three years, 30 states have passed new drunk-driving legislation, increasing penalties and, in some cases, imposin mandatory jail sentences for the offense -- even for cases where no one was injured. Some jurisdictions have had to add judges and improvise correctional facilities to handle the increased caseload, but the public has supported the changes. On the very day of Mr. Burke's sentencing, legislators in Annapolis were hearing testimony on a variety of proposals to stiffen Maryland's law. They are responding to the fact that last year there were 298 alcohol-related traffic deaths in the state, an improvement over 354 the year before.

Perhaps nothing a court does can console Mr. Crouch's young widow, his parents and his two small children. But the law is supposed to reflect community values, and the courts have an obligation to take an offense like this seriously. Mr. Burke is a first offender, and he expresses the remorse anyone would feel for his responsibility in this terrible accident. But a $500 fine for a man who can easily afford to pay it, and a TV documentary that may, in fact, increase his celebrity, is a penalty of little consequence when compared with the damage done.

Wouldn't the youngsters for whom Mr. Burke will make his documentary be more impressed with the consequences of drunk driving if they know, by his example, that their licenses would be revoked permanently or that they would go to jail if they killed someone? Do judges understand this?