Many Louisiana residents will not be surprised to learn that African Americans and other individuals of color are underrepresented among attorneys in the criminal justice system. Activists say that the disproportionate number of white prosecutors and judges in the United States has contributed to the unequal treatment of white and non-white defendants with black defendants often receiving harsher punishments.

In addition to a person’s race, his or her education and childhood background can impact the decisions a judge makes regarding sentencing. Activists say they have observed “subtle but meaningful” differences in how judges of color and female judges in criminal court treat defendants as compared to white men.

Some say that the reason there are so few judges and prosecutors of color is the underrepresentation of African Americans and other persons of color in law schools. These minorities often have a harder time getting into law school in the first place given unique obstacles they may face, and they are also more likely to drop out of law school than their white counterparts.

Though approximately 13% of Americans are Black, Black people account for only 5% of the attorneys in the country, according to a recent survey. According to a 2016 survey, less than 20% of state trial judges were individuals of color even though people of color combined make up about 39% of the population.

A judge’s job is to be impartial, but most people have some preexisting biases even if only on a subconscious level. Local criminal defense attorneys will often be familiar with the type of sentences that judges in the area tend to hand out for a particular crime. Criminal defense lawyers may also be aware of the typical plea bargains entered for a crime, which may help them when they are trying to negotiate a fair disposition of charges against their clients.