Q: How would you rate the U.S. military’s handling of sexual violence within its ranks?
A: It’s unacceptable. The U.S. military gets a failing grade for prosecuting offenders and flunks its responsibility to protect innocent victims of sexual violence. Called before Congress in May to account for its abysmal track record on this emotional issue, the top brass representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard was taken to the woodshed for failing to stop the spread of sexual violence among its ranks. Public confidence in the military culture and its justice system has been shaken as sexual assaults within the U.S. Armed Forces have increased. A recent Department of Defense Report reveals a 37 percent increase in cases of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact, estimating 26,000 cases in fiscal year 2012. That same report showed a nearly 10 percent drop in rates of reporting, with victims reporting only 3,374 incidents to military police or prosecutors. Notably, less than one in 10 cases ended with a sexual assault conviction at court martial. Talk about a chilling effect. The low reporting rate signals a growing number of victims is either too embarrassed to come forward, too afraid of retaliation or resigned the offender won’t be held accountable for the crime. This is not an issue from which military leaders can retreat. Sexual offenders must understand they will not get a pass from prosecution. It’s time for offenders and enablers to stand down and for those all along the chain of command to stand up for victims.
Q: How can the U.S. military improve its efforts to prevent these crimes and hold offenders accountable?
A: With decades of negligence under its belt, the top brass has lost credibility to fix this leadership failure. The absence of valor among the uniformed chain of command is remarkably disappointing considering the U.S. military code of honor is based on integrity and fidelity to the rule of law. Failing to crack down on a corrosive culture or on individuals who use sexual violence as a means of power will create lingering institutional problems that jeopardize morale and impact recruitment and retention of troops. That’s why I’m an original co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation that would remove prosecutorial decisions from the chain of command. Instead, the offices of the military chiefs of staff would have authority and discretion to establish courts, empanel juries and choose judges to hear case in military courts. This bipartisan bill — the Military Justice Improvement Act (S.967) sponsored by Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand — also would stop military authorities from granting clemency or a lesser offense to convicted offenders. It removes the discretion of commanders to alter convictions. It’s time to reboot the U.S. military’s failed approach towards sexual violence by reforming the military justice system, preventing sexual violence, empowering victims to come forward and prosecuting sex crimes.
Q: Why is Congress getting involved in a military issue?
A: Sexual assault is not a military issue. It’s a law enforcement issue. Unfortunately, military commanders have a failed track record that stretches a country mile. When young adults make the honorable commitment to serve their country in uniform and put themselves in harm’s way to defend and protect America’s freedoms, they deserve to know the U.S. military will stand up to protect their rights throughout their military service, including access to justice. The bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act would give members of the Armed Forces more confidence in the military system of justice, including protection from sexual violence and prosecution for those who violate the rule of law.