Black Enlisted Airmen Face Court-Martial at Much Higher Rates than White Peers, Study Finds

The seal of the Judge Advocate General Corps
The seal of the Judge Advocate General Corps is displayed inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

Black junior enlisted airmen are 86% more likely to receive non-judicial punishment or be referred to a court-martial over their white peers -- but are less likely to be convicted, a new federally funded Rand Corp. study analyzing racial disparities within the service shows.

Despite the alarming numbers, the Rand Corp. study released earlier this month found that the underlying causes of that trend were not immediately clear. Roughly one-fifth of the Article 15 and court-martial referrals disparity between Black and white airmen was attributed to differences in career field, hometown of an airman and their Armed Forces Qualification Test scores, the report said.

"For example, it was noted to us in interviews that being late or falling asleep on duty would be disciplined much more severely if the airman were in Security Forces than if they were in Force Support, in large part because the potential consequences of this behavior in the former are more dire," according to Rand.

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But the remaining four-fifths of the disparity "is unexplained," according to researchers, and "the results are consistent with a situation in which disparate treatment may be at least partly responsible for the disparity."

The study examined personnel and discipline data for the ranks E-1 through E-4 -- those most likely to face punishment -- between 2010 and 2019.

Rand said a 1972 Department of Defense report found that Black service members made up nearly 12% of the armed forces but made up more than 34% of all service members tried in a court-martial.

"About 50 years later, several studies have indicated that the size of these disparities has hardly changed," Rand said. "Although the existence of racial disparities within the military justice system has been well documented, the causes of these disparities have not been determined."

While Black airmen saw higher rates of non-judicial punishments and court-martials, they were less likely to be convicted than their white peers.

"Black airmen referred to a court-martial are actually less likely to be convicted than white airmen and face lower sentences, conditional on conviction," the report detailed. "Among airmen issued an Article 15, there are no racial differences in punishments received."

The study did not determine that "a lower standard of evidence is being used to refer Black airmen cases relative to white airmen cases," adding that even if those service members are less likely to be convicted, the process can ruin their lives and careers.

"It is important to note that, even if an airman is not found guilty, the process of being accused, investigated, and having their case adjudicated can still have a negative impact on the airman's reputation, career opportunities, well-being, and family," the report said.

Notably, the disparity between white airmen and other racial groups was smaller than that between white and Black airmen.

The findings detailed that Article 15 and court-martial referrals were 27% more likely for American Indian/Alaska Native airmen and 8% more likely for Hispanic airmen. Hawaiian Native/Pacific Islander airmen were equally likely to receive referrals compared to their white counterparts, but Asian airmen were less likely.

Rand said additional detailed data on administrative actions "would allow for a more complete understanding of the nature and extent of racial disparities within the [Department of the Air Force] military justice system" and added that collection of that data is currently underway.

Additionally, Rand researchers also suggested reducing individual biases, evaluation assessments of policies and having punitive actions decided by more than just a commander.

"Having a diverse group of individuals make discipline decisions might mitigate disparities and increase trust in the process," the report detailed.

Rand's study comes as the Air Force has spent several years examining the experiences of Black airmen, minorities and women in the service, and some inequities and disparities that exist.

In 2022, the Department of the Air Force updated its demographic goals for the first time in nearly a decade, reported.

It aimed to have its officer applicants be 67.5% white, 13% Black, 10% Asian, 7% multi-racial, 1.5% American Indian and 1% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. The services are also aiming to have 15% of all applicants be Hispanic, as well as 36% of all applicants be female.

The last time the Department of the Air Force updated its target goals for diverse applicants was in 2014 -- when the Air Force's target applicant pool goal was 80% white, 10% Black, 8% Asian, 1% American Indian and 1% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, according to data provided by the service. It also aimed to have 30% of all applicants across demographics be women and 10% Hispanic.

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