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Top Legal Officers Address Racial Disparity in Military Justice

June 16, 2020 | BY Terri Moon Cronk , DOD News

Racial disparity in the military justice system exists, and much work remains to put an end to it, the services' top legal officers said on Capitol Hill.

Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel subcommittee today were judge advocate leaders Army Lt. Gen. Charles N. Pede, Navy Vice Adm. John G. Hannink, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Rockwell and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Daniel J. Lecce.

"Today our Army represents our country's best ideals more than ever," Pede said. "And I also believe that like the country we serve, there is still much more that must be done."

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He noted the Uniform Code of Military Justice — a federal law enacted by Congress that governs the military justice system —  was born out of a concern for fundamental fairness for those suspected of a crime. "But as good as our justice system is, we can never take for granted its health or its fairness. It requires constant care," Pede said.

All four judge advocate general officers said a May 2019 General Accounting Office report found racial disparities in the military justice system. They agreed militarywide training and education is necessary to solve the issue.

"[The GAO] report raises difficult questions — questions that demand answers. Sitting here today, we do not have those answers. So our task is to ask the right questions and find the answers," Pede said.

Only as a unified force that's free of discrimination, racial inequality and prejudice can we fully demonstrate our core values and serve as the elite warfighting organization America requires and expects us to be."
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Daniel J. Lecce, staff judge advocate to the commandant of the Marine Corps

The Army JAG said he directed a comprehensive assessment with the provost marshal general "to get left of the allegation, left of the disposition decision, to examine why the justice system is more likely to investigate certain soldiers in what investigations and command decisions tell us about the issue."

Unlawful discrimination undermines a unit's ability to function effectively, and it cannot be tolerated, Hannink noted. "We must overcome any bias or any stereotype that diminishes cohesiveness, camaraderie, or morale," he said.

The Navy can't be under any illusions about the fact that racism is alive and well in the country, the vice admiral said. "And I can't be under any illusions that we don't have it in our Navy. ... So the Navy emphatically and unequivocally denounces racism."

Rockwell said it's vital to eradicate racial disparity in the military justice system to ensure fairness, inclusion and diversity for all service members; and he added that an inclusive and diverse force is "absolutely necessary to defend a diverse and inclusive nation."

A military lawyer works at a desktop computer.
Army Major
Army Maj. John P. Policastro, the regimental judge advocate general attorney for Regimental Support Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, Vilseck, Germany, emails a flyer regarding changes to the Military Justice Act of 2016, Dec. 18, 2018. He attended a 15-hour training course on the changes, tand would lead training to bring commanders, first sergeants and command sergeants major on the updates, which took effect Jan. 1, 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. LaShic Patterson
VIRIN: 181218-A-YM380-1009

While the Navy reviews specific cases to ensure there is not disparate treatment based on a protected class, "we don't have clear answers or underlying reasons as to why the disparity exists," Rockwell said. As with all difficult issues the nation faces, solutions to address that disparity will require whole-of-government and societal approaches, he added.

"Only as a unified force that's free of discrimination, racial inequality and prejudice can we fully demonstrate our core values and serve as the elite warfighting organization America requires and expects us to be," Lecce said.

The Marine Corps' commitment and determination to ensuring equality among Marines "remain steadfast and enduring," he told the House panel.