White men make up just 31% of the US population, but they enjoy a much higher percentage among elected prosecutors' ranks: 79%, while whites in general comprise a staggering 95% of all elected prosecutors nationwide, reports the New York Times. An analysis by the Women Donors Network parsed the database of 2,437 elected prosecutors and also found that more than 60% of states have zero elected black prosecutors, while in 15 states all the elected prosecutors are white, a press release from the group notes. "What this shows us is that … we have a system where incredible power and discretion is concentrated in the hands of one demographic group," the study's leader tells the Times. Several high-profile cases involving unarmed black men being killed by police or while in police custody have reignited a national conversation on race and the criminal justice system.
Why the prosecutorial makeup matters, per the release: Prosecutors decide whether a case is worth pursuing, whether a crime is a misdemeanor or felony, and how much jail time the defendant may face, if any. "Elected prosecutors have an enormous influence on the pursuit of justice in America, yet four out of five of them are white men whose life experiences do not reflect those of most Americans," the WDN's website states. The president of the National Black Prosecutors Association agrees, telling the Times: "When you walk into a courtroom and no one looks like you, do you think you are going to get a fair shake?" And it might not be that easy to shake things up, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative nonprofit tells the Times, noting most prosecutors, once elected, serve for a long time. "I think what these numbers dramatize is that the reality is much worse than most people imagine and that we are making almost no progress," he says. (Check out the study's infographics site.)