Washington Mayor Marion Barry has done much to engineer his own downfall, but only the most hardened cynics or drug war fanatics can rejoice in seeing him go to jail. But those who say the six-month sentence meted out Friday is proof that the government is hounding Barry are also off the mark. The sentence would be unusually harsh for an ordinary first-time drug-possession offender, but Marion Barry is hardly ordinary.
Barry is the longtime leader of a city plagued by a serious drug-crime problem. Under his stewardship residents of the nation's capital are being murdered at the rate of about one per day, while untold thousands more become less spectacular casualties of the drug culture. Yet while purporting to lead the fight against this plague as commander-in-chief of Washington's police force, for years Barry seems to have been consorting with drug dealers and users.
In the end it was Barry's own hypocrisy that cost him, although there's plenty on the government's side, too, including the government's using sex to lure him before the hidden cameras. In the face of overwhelming evidence of his misbehavior he has consistently opted to brazen it out by manipulating racial politics, even in the courtroom. After a jury deadlocked on more serious charges in August, he lacked even the grace to remove himself from a city government long paralyzed by his own distractions. Only when sentencing drew near did he profess even perfunctory remorse for the damage he caused. That approach isn't likely to endear anyone to a judge.
We said in earlier editorials that Barry doesn't belong in jail, but we also said all bets were off if he insisted on running for elected office again. So it's hard to argue that the sentence is unfair under the circumstances. Does the comparatively light treatment of Michael Deaver or Ollie North suggest a double standard of justice for black officials? Perhaps, but this isn't the best case to prove that black officials face a double standard, because regardless of color Barry's still a scoundrel.
We won't be sorry to see his sentence reduced, because like other drug abusers Barry would be better served by treatment than by imprisonment. But he simply lacks the moral credibility to claim he's being treated unfairly. His leadership was a lie, and he cheated his loyal supporters of the honest government they badly need. He won't be the first public official to do jail time when, whatever the technical conviction, the true offense was making a mockery of his duties of office.