Looking to Fight Racial Disparity, Marines Begin Collecting More Demographic Data on Minor Offenses

A drill instructor introduces himself to new recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina.
A drill instructor introduces himself to new recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. (Sgt. Ryan Hageali/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The Marine Corps has started to collect demographic data on victims of low-level offenses as part of ongoing changes to the military justice system the Pentagon has argued are needed to combat long-standing racial disparities.

Beginning in August, the Marine Corps began recording anonymous race, ethnic and gender data for victims of all nonjudicial punishment offenses, or NJPs, in a revised form that was announced that month. Information on the accused is collected as well, but not on the updated form, the Corps told Military.com.

Lawmakers have been pushing the military for reforms to its justice system through a series of annual defense policy bills, though much of the attention has been directed at courts-martial, where punishments are typically more dire.

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However, the Pentagon found in an internal review completed in 2022 that the greatest disparities occur where there is limited oversight, like NJPs, and where decisions are made at lower levels of the chain of command.

In its fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated that the secretary of each military department submit reports on racial, ethnic and gender data within the military justice system.

Units are being tasked by the services with gathering data, scrubbing it of personally identifying information, and reporting it in the aggregate up the chain until it gets back to Congress every April 30. Part of that mandate also included gathering victim demographics and NJP data.

For the Marine Corps, this comes in the form of an updated NAVMC 10132 form, or Unit Punishment Book entry, which is used to record low-level punishments.

"The NAVMC 10132 is for use at the level an NJP occurs, and may be used for recording nonjudicial punishment actions at any level, from company-level nonjudicial punishment to general officer nonjudicial punishment," Maj. Kevin Stephensen, a Marine Corps spokesperson, told Military.com last week.

Until August, the form did not have a section for certain demographic questions. Now, it includes a section where leaders are told to record victim information, including gender, race and ethnicity, as well as their overall status as military personnel, spouse, dependent or civilian.

The new data is meant to help more broadly reveal disparities that have already become apparent in analysis of those accused of infractions.

"There's two sides to this," former Maj. Daniel Walker, who served as an Air Force F-22 Raptor mission commander and is now a board member for the Black Veterans Project, or BVP, told Military.com on Friday. "There's an offense and then there's a victim, and to have both sets of data would be important. … I want to know who the victims are. Is there a certain race or demographic that is reporting another race or demographic more often?"

In 2021, the Pentagon reported that nearly 4% of the force is subject to nonjudicial punishment, the most common form of official penalty in the military. Citing a report from the Center for Naval Analyses, the Pentagon said that "Black enlisted personnel were more likely than white enlisted personnel to be investigated and be involved in nonjudicial punishment and courts-martial in some way," though there's no evidence they commit infractions at higher rates.

Walker, now a Harvard Law School student, had experience as a commander adjudicating NJPs and said that, even though the penalties may be smaller, it's an area that can greatly impact careers.

"Maybe this troop is always getting stuff written up, but other troops are getting a little more leeway," he said. "Over the life of a six-, seven-, 10-year career, that's the difference between … certain benefits, certain bases, certain opportunities. Now, you've got a really wide disparity in promotions, punishments and then later on -- depending on how severe the disparities are -- in discharges and rights to benefits."

He said that, even though the data collection may seem like a small advancement, all branches may be able to identify potential problems based on the findings.

"Part of the reason you collect data is because you might be surprised at what it tells you," he said. "One of the things I've learned in my leadership positions is that if you're not tracking it, then it's not a priority."

In the first year after the congressional requirement to collect data came into effect, each branch interpreted the law differently and the services did not capture each level of punishment or victim data the same way or, in some cases, at all. The differences, according to a Defense Department review, prevented "meaningful analysis" of the disparities, though the data that could be interpreted was called "unacceptable" by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.

As the Pentagon overhaul progresses, services are attempting to hone in those reporting requirements to bear a more meaningful analysis, though each branch appears to be moving at a different pace.

While the Marine Corps just began collecting anonymous victim demographic data, the Navy said it has been doing so "where appropriate" since the first quarter of 2021, a spokesperson told Military.com on Thursday. A spokesperson for the Army told Military.com that it has been collecting demographic data for nonjudicial punishments since 2017.

The Air Force has collected data on the accused for NJPs since at least 2021. A spokesperson for the service told Military.com that, in the coming months, "installation commanders will be required to publish the nature and results of all disciplinary actions related to sexual harassment and sexual assault without identifying the accused, the victim, or the unit."

The Pentagon was initially criticized by the Government Accountability Office -- a congressional watchdog -- in 2019 for not collecting consistent data amid its greater findings of racial disparity within the military justice system.

"Collecting this information will help to identify any racial disparities in the nonjudicial punishment process," a defense official told Military.com on Thursday of all branches, not just the Marine Corps. "The identification of such disparities is essential to devising effective strategies to address any such disparities."

Those disparities have yielded a wide range of negative consequences, according to the Pentagon.

As the military faces its worst recruiting crisis in years, the Defense Department itself has cited inequality in the justice system as a contributing factor, including in retention.

"Racial disparities in investigations, administrative separations, nonjudicial punishment, and courts-martial not only create a perception that these systems are 'unfair,'" the Pentagon said in its 2022 internal report. "They also contribute to the loss of talent today and poison the recruiting well for tomorrow."

But the negative effects go beyond the military's current force, according to Walker. Nonjudicial punishment, he said, is often the first step in what can bring a service member into a justice system potentially riddled with inequity, and therefore might bring lifelong consequences.

"These are wealth implications too, and health," he said, adding that an NJP can snowball into other dire legal implications that may affect discharge status and benefits ratings.

"While military service can be looked at as this hugely altruistic thing -- service before self," Walker said, "there is a huge component that can be a life-changing financial decision for a lot of people, especially if you're coming from a less than advantageous economic background."

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

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