WASHINGTON -- When Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Patricia L. Gatling walks into a courtroom, the first question out of the judge's mouth occasionally isn't about the case she will plead or the sentence she will seek.
"Are you the defendant?" the judge will ask Ms. Gatling, who has worked as a prosecutor for a decade and is black. "Oh, are you the defendant's mother?"
"It can be very depressing," said Ms. Gatling, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Law. "I've often gone home and cried about it. When will they accept me?" she asks.
Her difficulties are painfully familiar to the 140 black prosecutors from across the country who gathered here this week for the 10th annual meeting of the National Black Prosecutors Association. Organized by Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, the prosecutors discussed sentencing, victims' rights and judicial strategy, and listened to speeches by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and others.
But the issue of racism in the criminal justice system was never far from the surface. The prosecutors are acutely aware that many people in the black community question whether blacks receive equal treatment under the law.
Critics of the justice system point to a 1992 study by the Federal Judicial Center, a unit of the federal courts, that shows the average sentence for black drug offenders is 49 percent longer than for whites with the same records and charges.
Their outrage was fueled this month after two Los Angeles police officers received 30-month sentences for the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King -- far less time than government guidelines called for.
"It was egregious," said Millicent Edwards-Gordon, a Maryland assistant attorney general who represented the Maryland State Police for nine years in civil cases. Prince George's County Deputy State's Attorney Jack Johnson, said he, too, was disappointed with the outcome, which came more than two years after the initial beating.
"We face a difficult challenge," said Odell G. McGhee, who is the only black among the 38 assistant prosecutors in Des Moines, Iowa. "So many African-Americans have contact with the criminal justice system. 'How in the world can can you be black and and be a prosecutor?' they ask me. 'How can you be part of a system that puts black folks in jail?' "
The convention serves as a kind of group therapy, a place where black prosecutors can discuss the unique pressures they face.
"You find out you are not alone," said Mr. McGhee. "You think you are, but you aren't. It also gives us a place to vent our frustration."
The prosecutors commiserated about the accusations of betrayal they face from within the black community. But they also spoke of the joy they feel at winning cases and promotions, and the knowledge that the ranks of black prosecutors, lawyers and judges are steadily growing.
In particular, Mr. Simms and others praised President Clinton's eagerness to appoint blacks and other minorities to vacant federal judgeships and prosecutor's posts in greater numbers than previous administrations. Earlier this month, the president nominated Alexander Williams Jr., state's attorney for Prince George's County and another convention organizer, to one of three vacant federal judgeships in Maryland.
But the discussions often returned to the issue of racial bias within the system.
Ms. Edwards-Gordon moderated a discussion yesterday about one of the most controversial techniques used by police on highways in Maryland and across the United States -- random stops or searches according to a "profile" of a likely offender.
In practice, say many civil rights advocates, this means randomly stopping blacks, especially young black males, for no reason at all. Police respond that the profiles are not race-based but are built on other factors, including a driver's appearance or manner or the type of car they drive.
But many of the black prosecutors know about random stops from experience. In an interview, Mr. Simms said he has been pulled over by police twice -- once in Baltimore and once in Baltimore County.
"It happens," Mr. Simms said, adding that he bears no ill will toward the police. "As long as the officer is doing his job and handles the contact responsibly."
Ms. Edwards-Gordon said the debate over profile stops is an especially difficult one.
"It's hard to separate the black community's experience," she said. "But we have to recognize the compelling interest of the state in fighting drugs and drug distribution."
"It's a balancing act," she said.
Mr. McGhee agreed that discrimination within the system cannot stop black prosecutors from doing their jobs.
"Remember, a tremendous amount of crime is black-on-black crime," Mr. McGhee said. "Our first responsibility is to protect the streets."