Blacks and Hispanics Face Military Trials at Disproportionate Rates: GAO Report

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Military Criminal Justice. Courtesy of the Air Force
Military Criminal Justice. Courtesy of the Air Force

Black and Hispanic service members are more likely to face criminal investigations and be brought to trial than their white counterparts, though they are no more likely to be convicted, according to a government watchdog investigation report.

The Defense Department "has not comprehensively evaluated the causes of racial or gender disparities in the military justice system," the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursday. "Doing so would better position DoD to identify actions to address disparities and help ensure the military justice system is fair and just."

The report also found that the services don't record race and ethnic data in the same way, making it difficult to compare disparities among the military branches. Still, the report concluded that multiple racial disparities exist.

The GAO recommended that the Defense Department and its military branches, as well as the Coast Guard, establish a uniform way for recording race and ethnic information into all military justice databases.

The Pentagon also was urged to identify the causes of any disparities in the military justice system and take steps to address them.

The GAO said the Defense Department and Coast Guard largely concurred with the report's findings.

The GAO's analysis centered on the period from 2013 to 2017 and found that in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, black, Hispanic and male service members were more likely than white and female service members to be investigated. They were also more likely to be tried in general and special courts-martial. General courts-martial include more serious offenses and typically carry greater potential punishments than special courts-martial.

During that time frame, more than 258,000 active-duty service members were disciplined for a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, out of more than 2.3 million active-duty troops who served during the period.

In the Army, white soldiers represented 49% of recorded investigations while representing 59% of the total population. Blacks, meanwhile, represented 33% of the investigations while representing 21% of the Army population. Hispanic soldiers were 13% of the population and 13% of the investigations.

In the Navy, white sailors represented 41% of recorded investigations and 52% of the population. Blacks were among 25% of the investigations but 16% of the population. Hispanics were 18% the investigations while representing 15% of the Navy.

In the Marines, white troops were the focus of 58% of recorded investigations and 66% of the Corps population. Black Marines were part of 19% of the investigations while representing 10% of the population. Hispanics were part of 17% of the investigations and 18% of the population.

However, the disparities made little difference in terms of convictions.

"Race was not a statistically significant factor in the likelihood of conviction in general and special courts-martial," the GAO said.

Regarding punishment in courts-martial, the GAO found no statistically significant differences between white and black service members in the Marine Corps, Army and the Air Force. However, in the Navy, black sailors "were less likely to receive a more severe punishment in general and special courts-martial" compared to white service members, the GAO found.

The report also said there weren't statistically significant differences for Hispanics in connection with courts-martial sentencing.

The GAO review was prompted by a provision in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that called for an assessment of disparities within the military justice system.

Congress' mandate came after a 2017 report by the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders spotlighted the issue, finding that black service members were "substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice."

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