The Pentagon released new data last week on sexual assault in the military, showing a continued need for reform of the military justice system to help combat an epidemic that has gone virtually unabated over the past year.
According to the the Pentagon report, prepared using data collected by the Rand Corporation, there were about 19,000 cases of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact last year – over 50 cases a day. That number is less than the 26,000 cases in 2012, but still unacceptably high, especially since only one in four victims will report their assaults.
Of those who do report, nearly two-thirds reported that they faced retaliation. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called this figure a “screaming red flag,” and released a renewed call to action in support of the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). The bi-partisan bill received 55 votes in the Senate earlier this year, but not enough to defeat a filibuster. Gillibrand is now calling for a new vote on MJIA – either as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act or a as a stand alone bill.
The MJIA would move the decision to prosecute military sexual assault outside the chain of command and give it to trained, independent professional military prosecutors. The bill would apply to all crimes punishable by one or more years in confinement, and would exclude crimes that are uniquely military, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave.
“There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed,” said Senator Gillibrand in response to the Pentagon report. “Enough is enough, last December the President said he would give the military and previous reforms a year to work and it is clear they have failed in their mission.”
The need for reform was summed up by Col. Don Christensen (Ret.), former Chief Prosecutor for the Air Force. “The rapist boss should not determine the fate of a victim’s case,” he said.
Col. Christensen called the current process an “ineffective, broken system of justice” that “undermines the military I love.” He explained, “If you really knew what victims have to go through when they walk into a military courtroom; walk by their co-workers, their bosses, their commanders, their first squad leaders; all sitting behind her rapist; you would understand why we need to change the way we do things in the military.”
The failure to significantly reduce sexual assault in the military, the persistent hurdles to reporting, and the inherent bias of the system point to the need for action, according to Gillibrand and a bipartisan group of Senators who stood with her as she pushed for another vote on MJIA. By taking prosecutorial discretion out of the chain of command, the MJIA removes inherent conflicts of interest and helps create a more equitable justice system while giving some additional confidence to those who fear reporting due to the threat of retaliation.
Overall, 74 percent of women and 60 percent of men in the military perceive a barrier to reporting sexual assault. About 62 percent of women who decided to report their assault say they experienced some form of retaliation for doing so. They also continued to face a broken system, highlighted in a recent New York Times magazine feature, in which commanders fail to prosecute sexual assault cases, and convicted rapists go without punishment.
Media Resources: Office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand 12/3/14, 12/2/14; Bloomberg 12/4/14; New York Times 11/26/14; Politico 4/29/14; Feminist Newswire 3/7/14