AT A TIME WHEN METROPOLITAN AREAS WITH far stickier relations between minorities and police are struggling to make reforms, King County is unique in receiving a $146,000 grant from the federal Department of Justice to attack racial disparities in its criminal justice system.

The Law Office of the Public Defender, which handles cases for both King County and Seattle and applied for the grant, hasn't yet figured out how it'll spend the cash. One priority is to build a pool of evidence that can be used in legal cases, addressing the racism that is said to permeate the county's criminal justice system.

Indeed, bias in Washington state courts and police procedures is well documented. Since as far back as 1986, two University of Washington sociology professors, Bob Crutchfield and George Bridges, have been publishing studies detailing it.

• In 1998, Bridges found that police officers in three counties in the state "consistently portray black youths differently than white youths in their written court reports," and that these portrayals result in more severe sentences for blacks for similar crimes. The report also notes that cops tend to characterize minority kids as predatory and "disposed to chronic criminal offending."

• In 1997, Bridges found that Washington's Superior Courts are more likely to set bails higher for minority defendants to keep them in custody until their hearings, and less likely to release them on personal recognizance. Being released before trial--especially on personal recognizance--is viewed favorably by judges.

• In 1995, Crutchfield found that King County prosecutors made different decisions about which cases to file, what types of charges to make, and whether to negotiate a reduction in charges, depending on the race of the defendant.

It was this kind of documentation--and the fact that officials haven't exactly rushed to reform the system--that made King County a good choice for the grant. Says Public Defender Lisa Daugard: "King County has an unusual amount of hard evidence showing race disparities, but very little response. These huge reports come out, the paper reports on them, and nothing is ever done about their recommendations. That looks particularly bad."

Washington state's criminal justice system is also viewed as more open to change than others in the country (that's so West Coast!). Bob Boruchowitz, director of the Defender's office, says, "The justice system in the east is much more entrenched, and so there's more of a sense of a possibility for change here. We don't have centuries of judges being picked because of their political indebtedness, or [people] bribing clerks in order to have cases heard." He also adds that "prosecutors and defenders have a good working relationship here," which may raise a few eyebrows among accused criminals. "One reason we got the grant is probably that we have a reputation for that kind of cooperation."

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