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Originally published Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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State courts unfair to men, minorities, UW study alleges

A University of Washington study has found disparities in race and gender in the penalties doled out by the state's criminal courts.

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA A University of Washington study has found disparities in race and gender in the penalties doled out by the state's criminal courts.

The study, conducted on behalf of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, found that Hispanic defendants are given significantly higher fees and fines than white defendants. It also found that defendants who take their cases to trial instead of pleading guilty face steeper fines.

The study, which spanned four years and involved more than 3,000 felony cases, urges an overhaul of the way Superior Court judges assign fees and fines in cases involving impoverished and minority defendants. The study even suggests that the state should let poor defendants pay their court-mandated financial obligations through community service.

"Our findings show that some people convicted of similar offenses face very different sentencing outcomes, not on the length of confinement but on the financial side," said Katherine Beckett, an associate sociology professor at UW. "It's a huge financial obligation to possess."

The study focused on court fees and fines, not the amount of time that defendants were sentenced to jail or prison.

The report indicates:

• Men are given higher court fees and fines than women.

• Drug convictions result in higher fees and fines than violent felony convictions.

The study also showed that court fees varied tremendously by county — in one case a man convicted of drug offenses in Pierce County was fined $600, while a man convicted of the same crime in Lewis County was assessed $6,710 in fines.

Beckett and Assistant Professor Alexes Harris started the study in 2006 when the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission hired the UW to analyze the state's system for imposing court fees, fines and other legal obligations. The sociology professors combed through each of the 3,366 cases adjudicated by Superior Courts throughout the state in January and February 2004 and tracked several of the defendants over the following four years, the UW said.

Beckett and Harris turned over their study to the commission in August, but the UW released the study to the public on Tuesday. It's unclear why the report wasn't released directly by the commission. Officials with the commission didn't return calls for comment on Tuesday.

Beckett believes the study, which also includes interviews with defense attorneys, county clerk staff and convicted criminals, may finally show state and local officials the evidence they need to support a systematic overhaul.

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King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said he has little sympathy for the disparities cited in the report. He believes fines are a good idea because they "hit people where it hurts."

"If they don't want to pay the fines, they shouldn't commit the crimes," Satterberg said.

Among the recommendations listed in the report:

• Creation of a statewide database to consolidate information about legal debts from all municipal and county sources to "simplify the repayment system."

• Adoption of legislation that would automatically restore the voting rights of felons after their sentences are completed.

A measure that would let felons easily regain their voting rights was proposed in the Legislature last month, but the proposal has since been transformed into a bill that simply recommends a study. Lawmakers want the Secretary of State's Office to study current state statutes relating to voting-rights restoration and issue a report during next year's legislative session.

Jennifer Sullivan: 360-236-8267 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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