Military services provide few answers, but many promises on racial disparities

The military services gave Congress few answers on why racial disparities in punishments continue to exist, but say they will be steadfast in their adherence to a relatively new law that will improve data on racial issues.

Leaders of the military’s judicial arms stood before the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Tuesday to address recent reports that emphasized the continued pattern of minority service members at the E-5 level and below being court martialed more frequently.

Those issues, especially in the Air Force, were highlighted by the service member-advocacy group Protect Our Defenders as far back as 2016, but were not addressed — despite promises to do so.

The judge advocates general admitted the disparities were harmful to the military’s diversity, something the Pentagon is trying to expand to bring in the best talent and a wide variety of skills.

The officials promised to abide by a provision in the 2020 defense authorization act and Government Accountability Office recommendations, which also pointed out the issue and suggested ways to address it. However, they admitted the road ahead toward collecting better data, tackling systemic issues and changing behaviors is long.

“We just have a lot of work to do and we just have to get after this,” Maj. Gen. Daniel Lecce, staff judge advocate to the Marine Corps commandant, told the committee. “We realize we are at the beginning. We are looking at data, we are trying to understand the data, but there’s a lot of hard work that has to be done.”

The Army’s judge advocate general, Lt. Gen. Charles Pede, said when it comes to causality of the racial disparities, the services are in the very early stages of understanding what can cause it.

“We are developing a framework this very week and last week to figure that out,” Pede said.

Navy Judge Advocate General, Vice Adm. John Hannink, said the focus on data collection and the solid assessment and understanding on what to do about the disparities as laid out in a provision of the 2020 defense authorization act is the right way ahead.

The services also pointed to the GAO’s 2019 study on the issue as a roadmap to understand racial disparities, keep consistent data on them and evaluate the causes.

Lawmakers were not pleased with the military’s lack of previous action and initiative on the issue, however.

“The assessment of racial disparities was put in the 2020 defense authorization act not by you, not at your request, but at Congress’ request,” subcommittee chairwoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said. “While you’re relying on that now to recognize that there is work to be done, it would have been a whole lot better if it came from you.”

The law’s provision standardizes data about race on courts martial and establishes criteria to determine when racial disparities should be further reviewed.

The provision was in response to the GAO report, which found “the military services did not collect consistent information about race and ethnicity in their investigations, military justice, and personnel databases. Thus, the military services are limited in their ability to identify disparities.”

However, “available data identified disparities in how likely service members of different races were to be subjects of investigations recorded in military criminal investigative organization databases and tried in general and special courts-martial in particular.”

Other members of the committee and outside organizations put the onus on the military for knowing about the issue for years without addressing it.

Protect Our Defenders’ report from last month  alleges that since 2016 the Air Force repeatedly concealed records, embellished efforts and attempted to discredit its own statistics on racial disparities in the military justice system.

“Despite the Air Force’s internal findings in 2016 that it has a ‘consistent’ and ‘persistent’ racial disparity in prosecutions of black service members, it appears the Air Force has done nothing in the last four years to solve the problem,” Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, said.

The service’s panel on the issue did not make it far.

“The Air Force claimed they were going to look into the problem, and they did stand up a panel that seemed to be of people trying to get an answer, and they made recommendations on how to move forward,” Christensen told Federal News Network. “That initial report was in 2016. Four years later, nothing has been done.”

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