Blacks and Hispanics were more likely than their white comrades to wind up in front of a general court-martial, a report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office found.
Worries of racial bias have haunted the civilian justice system for decades, but the military was largely considered the nation’s best example of racial harmony. But investigators say the military faces the same issues as the rest of society.
“Black, Hispanic, and male service members were more likely than white and female service members to be the subjects of recorded investigations in all of the military services, and were more likely to be tried in general and special courts-martial in the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force,” the report says.
The report stopped short of determining why more minorities wound up in court more often. The report found no evidence of selective prosecution.
But what the report did find triggered alarm bells in the Pentagon. Military leaders are proud of their record on race. The military integrated its ranks in 1948, when much of America was still under Jim Crow laws. The military has also been a leader in the acceptance of women and gays.
Allegations of racial discrimination in the Pentagon’s ranks result in swift investigations and sharp punishment if bigotry is found.
The report was ordered by Congress during a revamp of the military’s law book, the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It examined records from 2013 to 2017.
But trying to tease conclusions on racial disparity from the military’s databases proved frustrating for investigators, because services didn’t consistently track the race of defendants and suspects. The Coast Guard didn’t have racial data in its justice files, and the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines offered inconsistent data, the report found.
“The military services collect gender information, but they do not collect and maintain consistent information about race and ethnicity in their investigations, military justice, and personnel databases,” the report found. “This limits their ability to collectively or comparatively assess these data to identify any disparities.”
The agency asked the military to come up with a better system for tracking racial data to determine if the military’s justice system is fair.
The agency wants race tied to military justice records, from nonjudicial punishment to investigations. Having that data available would allow a complete assessment of the impact of race on military justice, investigators said.
The military is moving on with a plan to fix its record-keeping by the end of 2020.