Marion Barry's Sentence

November 01, 1990

Proper justice was not meted out in the trial, conviction and sentencing of Washington Mayor Marion Barry, now running for an at-large seat on the D.C. City Council.

We said in August that the jury had before it enough evidence to convict Mr. Barry on more than a single misdemeanor count of "simple possession" of cocaine. That was injustice No. 1. Injustice No. 2 was the sentence Mr. Barry received last week. He should not have been given six months in prison. That is unduly harsh for this crime.

Judge Thomas P. Jackson stayed within federal sentencing guidelines -- barely, and only by deciding that the mayor had not taken responsibility for his crime and had obstructed justice.

Most first-time "simple possession" sentences involving cocaine do not result in prison time. Judge Jackson said this sentence was deserved in large part because of the mayor's "prominence." It was a symbolic sentence, in other words.

In ordinary circumstances, such a judicial decision might be justified, but not in this one. It comes at a time when most black Americans believe Republican law enforcers over the past 10 years have been unfairly harsh on black office holders and have practiced selective prosecution. So when a Reagan bench appointee who recently gave a white Reagan official (Michael Deaver) community service rather than prison time for a felony (not a misdemeanor) conviction acts so harshly, that is bound to increase suspicion and hostiliy.

Mayor Barry's sentence becomes a symbol to many people of that same anti-black selectivity. We do not charge Judge Jackson with racism or even partisanship, only with an unjudicious understanding of the symbolic action he has taken.

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