Marion Barry has chance for impact one last time


October 28, 1990|By ROGER SIMON

Not many first-time drug offenders are sent to prison.

For one thing, there isn't room for them all. And for another, not all of them deserve it.

Sometimes people commit drug crimes through ignorance or foolishness, or through the influence of others. This does not make them innocent, but it might make them a candidate for probation.

Marion Barry is a first-time drug offender. Which is not to say he hasn't used illegal drugs for years -- he has.

But he was caught for the first time this year. A jury found him guilty of one misdemeanor charge of cocaine possession and on Friday a judge sentenced him to six months in prison.

Barry's supporters are outraged. They point out that ordinary people don't go to prison for that offense, so why should a mayor?

Well, because he's a mayor, that's why.

Marion Barry was elected to serve the people and not to use his office as a means of obtaining cocaine.

Marion Barry is not some naive goof who fell in with bad company. He is smart and tough. He influenced others; they didn't influence him.

A lot of people looked up to Marion Barry. And it is important to show them where he is now headed.

Marion Barry was born in poverty, but he did not stay there. He worked hard all his life: He was a good student; an Eagle Scout; he got a master's degree in chemistry, became a college instructor, a civil rights organizer, a school board president, a City Council member and, finally, mayor of Washington.

And, along the way, he did drugs. Hundreds of times.

But when he got caught and when he got convicted, instead of coming clean, he decided to shift the blame. He wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson and said, basically, that he never really did anything wrong.

He did not take drugs. He did not shame his office. He did not humiliate himself.

His disease did.

This has become a very popular dodge over the last few decades. From the "Me Decade" we have gone to the "Don't Blame Me" Decade.

Individuals are no longer responsible for their own actions. Whatever they do -- take drugs, gamble illegally, cheat, steal, rob, murder -- is not their fault; it is the fault of their addiction or disease.

And so they don't need punishment when caught. What they need is a program. And then they will be good again.

So Marion Barry wrote to Judge Jackson and said: "I learned that I have an insidious disease that afflicts millions of Americans. . . . The activities and behavior that I participated in while under the ravages of this disease were degrading and outrageous."

Degrading and outrageous -- but not his fault.

Nope, he is a victim. Ravaged by a disease.

His wife made the other classic defense of the white-collar criminal: Since Barry had risen so high, his fall from power is punishment enough. (Though Barry is currently running for public office once again.)

"What further punishment does this man deserve?" Effi Barry asked in her letter. "For certain, there can be no greater sentence than to have the whole world tune into your day in court as you are publicly castrated."

This is a pretty good deal, you must admit. Even considering the castration part. Because it means that the higher you rise, the more immune you are from prison.

If you rise to great heights, become a criminal and then get caught, you can always say: "You can't send me to prison. The public humiliation is enough. Make me a tutor instead."

Which is what Marion Barry asked the judge to sentence him to:

being a reading tutor at a youth jobs program from eight to 10 hours a week for one year.

Judge Jackson did not accept that suggestion. Though he did listen to the pleas of Barry's friends.

Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, wrote the judge on Barry's behalf. And Hooks, who called himself Barry's "mentor," (a claim few others would wish to make) asked the judge for a sentence that "heals rather than destroys."

And I think the judge did just what Hooks asked.

The surest way to destroy Marion Barry is to teach him that crime does not lead to punishment.

Marion Barry never sought or received any help until he was arrested for possession of cocaine. All those people who now are so passionate in his defense were of no use to him before the police nabbed him.

Barry was a powerful man who saw no reason to modify his criminal behavior. Until he got caught. And now he is getting punished.

But what's the use of punishing a man who already says he's rehabilitated? This is the use:

People have looked up to Marion Barry all his life. And they had reason to. He worked hard and rose high. He did good things. He taught people through his example.

And now he has a chance to teach one great lesson to the person on the street, to the executive in the suite and to the kid in the schoolyard:

He can teach them that if you do the crime, you have to do the time.

"Having failed as the good example he might have been, the defendant must now become an example of another kind," Judge Jackson said when he sentenced Barry to prison.

And if Marion Barry deters just one person from crime because of the time he serves, he will have really accomplished something in this, the bleakest hour of his life.

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