Military sexual assault reports rise in 2017 but fewer servicemembers faced courts-martial

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 30, 2018

WASHINGTON — Reports of sexual assaults made by U.S. servicemembers increased 10 percent in fiscal year 2017 from the previous year, but fewer troops faced courts-martial as commanders often opted to punish offenders outside of the court system, Pentagon data released Monday showed.

Of the 6,769 sexual assault cases reported last year, military commanders found sufficient evidence to pursue disciplinary action in 2,218 cases, according to the Pentagon’s annual sexual assault report. Of the total cases reported, about 1,200 were outside of the Defense Department’s jurisdiction, according to the report.

Commanders referred charges to courts-martial in 774 cases, down from nearly 790 courts-martial in fiscal year 2016 when 6,172 sexual assaults were reported.

Meanwhile, commanders often chose other forms of punishment to reprimand servicemembers found to have committed sexual assaults or other crimes uncovered during a sexual assault investigation, according to the report. In 2017, 378 servicemembers faced administrative actions or a discharge related to a sexual assault investigation, up from about 260 in 2016. More so, 294 faced non-judicial punishment in 2017, about the same as the previous year.

Non-judicial punishment includes wide-ranging penalties outside of the military justice system, which can include loss of rank and has the potential to end servicemembers’ careers.

Pentagon officials said Monday that the fewer cases prosecuted as courts-martial was not necessary a negative sign. They insisted the increase in sexual assault reports reflected increasing willingness of servicemembers to come forward after an assault, and did not necessarily mean more assaults were occurring.

Nathan Galbreath, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said many sexual assault cases in 2017 did not go to courts-martial because victims chose not to testify, opting to allow commanders to use the other forms of punishment if evidence showed the accused was guilty.

“Because it is very, very challenging to go through the courts-martial process and testify, victims may opt not to testify and rather commanders are now left with administrative actions and discharges to hold people appropriately accountable,” he told reporters. “As a result, that’s probably why we saw an increase in those.”

Sexual assault reports increased in each of the four services in 2017, according to the report. Reports increased in the Marine Corps by 15 percent. They increased in the Navy and Air Force by about 9 percent and went up in the Army about 8 percent.

The report also showed an increase in cases of retribution for filing sexual assaults or harrassment complaints. Last year, there were 146 reports of retaliation, compared to 84 in 2016, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s clear that over the past 10 years, the department has made progress in combatting sexual assault in the military,” said Rear Adm. Ann Burkhardt, the director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “But we know that there is more work to be done.”

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