Victim advocates want radical overhaul in handling of military sex assaults
Published: December 29, 2011
WASHINGTON – Just a day after the Defense Department announced a sharp rise in the number of sexual assault reports at military academies, a pair of victims advocacy groups say the military needs a radical overhaul in how those cases are handled in order to end its problems with sexual violence.
Officials from Protect Our Defenders and the Service Women’s Action Network sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday asking for an independent office, staffed by military and civilian experts, charged with investigation, prosecution and victim care in all sexual assault cases, instead of the normal military chain of command.
“In a case of sexual assault, a commander may be responsible for both the victim and the offender, both of their units, and the entire base or ship where the offense occurred,” the letter states. “Command discretion empowers a commander to decide if the case goes forward to court martial. The great deference afforded to command discretion sets up a dynamic fraught with conflict of interest and potential for abuse of power.”
Officials from the groups note that other countries’ militaries have taken that step for some internal crimes, creating an independent prosecutor’s office to ensure matters are pursued properly. But the move would be a dramatic shift for the U.S. military, which gives commanders wide latitude over how to handle a host of ethical and criminal issues.
In 2010, more than 2,500 cases of rape and sexual assault were reported in the military, but defense officials believe that represents only a small fraction of the actual number of sex crimes committed. They estimate nearly 19,000 such assaults may have occurred last year.
Read the letter at the Protect Our Defenders web site.