The Pentagon has concluded that “significant racial disparities” exist within the military’s investigative and justice system despite a lack of sufficient data showing why such disparities exist, according to the final report released on Thursday.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hick set up a team in May 2022 to review evidence of racism in military justice with a “focus on addressing the root causes,” according to a memo. The group, dubbed the Internal Review Team (IRT), consulted studies and conducted focus groups finding enough evidence to support a conclusion that “significant racial disparities exist across the investigative and military justice systems,” but could not identify any root causes for those differences, the final report, dated August 2022, shows.
“These disparities are unacceptable. They degrade Service members, directly impact recruitment and operational readiness, and undermine public trust in the military,” Hicks wrote in a June 8 response to the report. (RELATED: Reports Of Sexual Assault In The Military Continue To Rise, Pentagon Survey Finds)
At least two studies — a 2019 Government Accountability Office report and another in 2022 by the Center for Naval Analyses — found that black, Hispanic and male servicemembers are more likely to be investigated or court-martialed than white or female servicemembers, according to the IRT. However, they also discovered that black enlisted members are no more likely to be found guilty than white members and often received lesser punishments, adding to the lack of clarity about the actual significance of racial disparities in military justice.
The IRT also said it encountered issues with data collection, including a lack of standardization in the way different military branches collect and analyze data on race and progress through the military justice system.
The Department of Defense (DOD) “is left with aggregate numbers showing disparities, but with little insight into precisely where in these processes the disparities are happening or why,” the IRT concluded.
The report also highlighted the role a servicemember’s direct supervisors play in the individual’s military career before the commanding officer ever subjects them to non-judicial discipline or court-martial. Lower-level supervisors make case-by-case decisions in responding to misconduct and performance deficiencies, particularly by “young and inexperienced enlisted members who are still adapting to the expectations of military service,” and can significantly impact members’ career.
In focus groups, junior enlisted servicemembers complained that their superiors operated without oversight and “believed that being ‘liked’ or ‘disliked’ by superiors improperly influences the outcome of disciplinary decisions,” according to the IRT.
Once a member enters the military justice system, other authorities, including military police and criminal investigators, make independent decisions that could still influence the outcome of a case, according to the IRT. These individual decisions create opportunities for racism to influence the military justice process.
“Even though the IRT was unable to conclusively establish the root causes for racial disparities in the investigative and military justice systems, we implore the DoD not to wait for perfect data or a mathematically certain root cause analysis to start taking action,” the IRT argued. Racial disparities have decreased when due process is more strictly adhered to, the IRT said, so it provided recommendations on strengthening the investigative and trial processes, which Hicks adopted.
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