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Armed forces to track race, ethnicity and gender of criminal suspects

As part of the $738 billion Fiscal Year 2020 defense funding bill that President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law Friday, the services will soon begin tracking the race, ethnicity and gender of troops accused of crimes in the military justice system, as well as victims.

Under the defense bill, each service will for the first time be required to record and compile the data in their annual military justice reports.

The legislation also mandates that the services conduct evaluations to identify “the causes of any racial, ethnic, or gender disparities identified in the military justice system,” and “take steps to address the causes of any such disparities.”

How that will be done remains to be seen, but studies in recent years have highlighted disparities in the military justice system.

A report by the Government Accountability Office this spring found that black and Hispanic service members were more likely to go to court-martial than their white counterparts.

At the same time, GAO found that once service members get to trial, the likelihood of conviction is nearly the same across all backgrounds.

The report warned that analysts did not have enough information to reach substantive conclusions about what the data means.

The defense bill’s provisions could lead to a better understanding about why these disparities exist, said Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the Air Force who now leads Protect our Defenders, a nonprofit advocacy group that released a study on racial disparities in the justice system in 2017.

That report also found black service members more likely to face disciplinary action but the reasons for these disparities remain unclear, he said.

In the civilian world, analysts look at socioeconomic causes for different criminal justice system outcomes, often tracking indicators like employment, education, prior criminal record or drug use, he said.

“In the military, those things are evened out,” Christensen said. “Everybody’s employed, everybody has an income, everyone has a high school education, drug use is virtually nonexistent.”

“So why do we still have this disparity?” he said. “That’s the million dollar question.”

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