Cover: Racial Disparities in the Department of the Air Force Military Justice System

Racial Disparities in the Department of the Air Force Military Justice System

Published Apr 10, 2024

by Shamena Anwar, Jhacova Williams, Nelson Lim


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Research Questions

  1. How might racial disparities within the DAF military justice system arise?
  2. How much of the racial disparity in Article 15s and court-martial referrals is explained by potential racial differences in offending rates and career fields in which the consequences of offending could be more dire?
  3. Are there further racial disparities among individuals issued an Article 15 or referred to a court-martial in terms of how their cases are adjudicated?

There is long-standing evidence that large racial disparities exist within the military justice system. A task report commissioned by the Department of Defense in 1972 found that while Black service members composed 11.5 percent of the armed forces, they constituted 34.3 percent of those tried in a court-martial. About 50 years later, several studies have indicated that the size of these disparities has hardly changed.

Although the existence of racial disparities within the military justice system has been well documented, the causes of these disparities have not been determined. Identifying the factors that are causing disparities is crucial to developing tailored policy options to reduce these disparities.

In this report, the authors use a mixed methods approach to identify how disparities in the military justice system can arise, at what stages of the system the disparities occur, and what factors can explain the disparities.

Key Findings

  • Among enlisted male airmen rank E1–E4 (where discipline is most concentrated), Black airmen were 86 percent more likely to be issued an Article 15 or referred to a court-martial than White airmen.
  • The disparities between White airmen and other race/ethnicity groups were markedly smaller: Article 15 and court-martial referrals were 27 percent more likely for American Indian/Alaska Native airmen, 8 percent more likely for Hispanic airmen, equally likely for Hawaiian Native/Pacific Islander airmen, and less likely for Asian airmen than White airmen.
  • Conditional on being issued an Article 15 or referred to a court-martial, there are no further racial disparities among Black airmen in the punishments received. Black airmen referred to a court-martial are actually less likely to be convicted than White airmen and face lower sentences. Among airmen issued an Article 15, there are no racial differences in punishments received.
  • About one-fifth of the Article 15 and court-martial referral disparity between Black and White airmen is explained by racial differences in career field and variables that might proxy for offending rates, including ZIP code characteristics of the airman's home of record and their Armed Forces Qualification Test scores.
  • The remaining four-fifths of the disparity in Article 15s and court-martial referrals is unexplained. Although definitive explanations are lacking, the results are consistent with a situation in which disparate treatment may be at least partly responsible for the disparity.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was made possible by the independent research and development provisions. The research was conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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