Residents of Oregon and the rest of the United States are asking tough questions regarding the treatment of its African American citizens at the hands of the judicial system. But while most of the attention is aimed directly at police forces across the nation, activists warn that the racial disparity among judges and prosecutors is at least an equal cause of the problem.

Recent studies provide a picture of what African-Americans and other minority groups face when needing to mount a criminal defense. Four out of 10 people living in America are people of color. However, 95 percent of the legal professionals elected to become prosecutors are white.

State trial judges play a vital role in all parts of the criminal justice system. These judges are responsible for signing search and arrest warrants, overseeing terms of probation and parole, and determine the amount of time a defendant will spend behind bars if found guilty of a criminal violation. In 2016, less than 20 percent of trial judges in America were men and women of color. The disparity was worse in some states with less than one non-white judge for every ten legal professionals occupying a bench.

Tracey George is a legal professor working at Vanderbilt University. George co-authored a study on the subject entitled “Gavel Gap” in 2016. Ms. George explains the legitimacy of the court comes into question when it fails to represent the community it is responsible for serving.

All individuals facing charges in a criminal court should understand the gravity of their situation. But there is no getting around the fact that the criminal justice system presents an additional set of challenges for some defendants. A skilled legal professional may be the best bet for individuals who need to defend themselves against criminal allegations.