WASHINGTON — Black troops are far more likely than their white comrades to face court martial or other forms of military punishment, according to a study to be released Wednesday.
Black service members were as much as two times more likely than white troops to face discipline in an average year, according to an analysis by Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy organization for victims of sexual assault and military justice. The group combed through Pentagon data from 2006 to 2015 for its report.
USA TODAY received an advance copy of the study.
“Over the past decade, racial disparities have persisted in the military justice system without indications of improvement,” the report states. “These disparities are particularly striking for black service members, who face military justice or disciplinary action at much higher rates than white service members in every service branch. In fact, the size of the disparity between white and black service members’ military justices involvement has remained consistent over the years, and, in the case of the Air Force and Marine Corps has increased.”
A spokesman for the Pentagon said officials will review the report. “It is longstanding Department of Defense policy that service members must be afforded the opportunity to serve in an environment free from unlawful racial discrimination,” said Johnny Michael, a Pentagon spokesman. “The department will review any new information concerning implementation of and compliance with this policy.”
The military services provided differing sets of data in response to the request from Protect Our Defenders, making comparisons among the services difficult. For example, the Air Force provided proceedings from court martial and non-judicial punishment from 2006 to 2015, while the Marine Corps supplied guilty findings for court martial and non-judicial punishment for the same period.
Marine Corps' discipline
The researchers found that the Marine Corps had some of the most significant issues with race, particularly in instances where the harshest penalties are possible.. In an average year, black Marines were 2.6 times more likely than whites to receive a guilty finding at a general court martial, the military judicial proceeding for more serious offenses. The data also show that guilty findings overall plummeted over that period, peaking in 2010, a period that coincided with peak deployments to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The study also found that black airmen were 71% more likely than whites in the Air Force to face court martial or non-judicial punishment, discipline meted out for less serious offenses.
Col. Patrick Ryder, an Air Force, spokesman, said any suggestion of unfair justice in the service is "concerning. The Air Force works hard to prevent unlawful discrimination in all of our processes, particularly military justice, and will continue to do so."
Findings for the other services, the Army and Navy, show disparities as well. Black soldiers were 61% more likely to face court martial than whites in the Army; and black sailors were 40% more likely than whites in the Navy to be court martialed. That percentage is 34% for black Marines.
“From the findings of the study, race appears like it plays a big role, which is disheartening,” Don Christensen, president of the group and a former top prosecutor for the Air Force, said in an interview. “It seems to have a sizable role in determining if somebody’s going to go to court or receive non-judicial punishment. I’m really not sure what exactly explains it, and that’s what is really troubling. The military has known about these numbers for decades and has done nothing about it.”
Lack of minority officers
Christensen said that the lack of diversity in the military may play a role in unequal justice for black troops. In 2016, about 78% of military officers were white, and 8% were black.
“If you look at the leadership of military it skews very dramatically white and male and you would imagine that the closer relationships will be with white male subordinates,” Christensen said. “Hence they probably get the benefit of the doubt that the African American males don’t.”
The study shows that the military isn’t immune from the same racial issues that affect civilian police and courts, said Michael Wishnie, clinical professor of law at Yale University. Stereotypes and implicit bias can affect who is arrested and charged and who gets a plea deal. “So it’s a lot like everything else in society, and that’s a real problem,” he said.
The lack of similar, comparable data from the services also prevents the Pentagon from pinpointing systemic problems, and identifying best practices, Wishnie said. The Pentagon could benefit from lessons learned in civilian justice as well as from foreign militaries.
“This report cries out for action,” he said.
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