JESSE JACKSON has called for a rapid resolution of plea negotiations between Mayor Marion Barry and the U.S. attorney to "spare a lot of pain in the city." His assessment, however, begins with a loaded, inaccurate characterization of events: "After all," he says, "not only is Marion Barry about to go to trial, so is the Justice Department. . . . It's bigger than Jay Stephens and it's bigger than Marion Barry." His prescription: Mr. Barry could pledge not to run for reelection in exchange for Mr. Stephens's allowing the mayor to plead to a lesser charge than a felony -- a settlement that the prosecutor reportedly is unwilling to agree to at this point.

Plea-bargaining does have its virtues and its uses. It has a place in criminal proceedings. But it is also an often abused procedure -- one that is undertaken not because it is right but because overloaded courts and overloaded penitentiaries make it impossible to prosecute fully and fairly all the defendants who should be prosecuted. In the case of Marion Barry it seems to us there could be merit in a reasonable -- and stiff -- settlement offered by the prosecutor in lieu of continuing the trial. The trial, as many people have already rightly remarked now that it looms as a possibility, could well be an extremely painful and traumatic experience for the city -- one that worsens already edgy relations among its many racial, economic and other groups.

But having said that, we hasten to add the point it seems to us that Mr. Jackson missed: this is not a negotiation between two equally guilty parties. One of the parties -- the mayor of this city -- is a criminal defendant standing trial on 14 criminal counts, including three felony charges of lying under oath to a federal grand jury and misdemeanor charges of cocaine possession. If these charges are proven, it will amount to a terrible betrayal not only of trust as a public official, but of the very constituents Mr. Barry claims to care about most. We are thinking especially of those people who live in the drug war zones of this city, who fear for their lives when they step out of the door, and who doubt their ability in the environment in which they are forced to live to raise children who do not themselves become victims and perpetrators of further drug crimes. Mayor Barry is not the victim of this scandal -- they are.

Mr. Jackson is the most recent commentator to be promoting the false logic that the prosecutor and the defendant are just two more or less equal disturbers of the civil peace who need to be separated and stopped from further fighting, as if this were a scuffle that had broken out at a hockey game or in some infield after a close pitch. He spoke of the "prosecution and persecution" of Mr. Barry; but Marion Barry is not being persecuted. It is he who has brought this situation on the city, he who has created the prospect of a prolonged criminal trial in which evidently a long train of witnesses -- many of them, too, former municipal officials who have been setting the worst possible example -- will be paraded before a disgusted city and a leering, contemptuous larger national and international audience.

People are beginning to talk about a possible trial, a judicial proceeding, as if it were not the constitutionally prescribed way to address such matters. In speaking about punishment for the same kind of crimes for which he now stands trial, Mr. Barry himself used to emphasize the importance of showing young people and their older misguiders in this awful traffic that it is not free, that it is punishable, that it won't be tolerated.

So that is why it's important that this not all end with a simple slap on the wrist or a finesse of the serious charges or any other kind of moral default. Any resolution of the case of Marion Barry should recognize fully the gravity of all the events that brought the man and the city to this humiliating moment.