News about sexual harassment and assault seems to be everywhere right now. And why not? It’s rampant all through society, and it’s high time that men–especially powerful men who’ve spent their entire lives cruising on a sense of entitlement–felt at least some heat. Entire institutions and industries–Hollywood, Congress, the White House, etc.–are currently making major headlines as cesspools of assault against women, but in terms of sheer numbers of sexual assault cases, few elements of society can stand next to the might of the United States Military.
“Repeated testimony from survivors and former commanders proves that there is widespread reluctance on the part of survivors to come forward to trial,” states a Nov. 16 news release from the office of U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, D–Hawaii. “Last year, the Department of Defense announced a record number of sexual assaults reported against service members, and the lowest conviction rates for their assailants on record, at just 9%. The most recent Pentagon survey found that nearly 6 out of 10 survivors say they have experienced some form of retaliation for reporting the crime.”
These statistics paint a picture of an out-of-control bureaucracy, in which survivors of sexual assault have virtually no incentive to do anything other than remain silent. Since 2013, Hirono has pushed for legislation that would reform this monstrously unjust system–legislation that always seems to go nowhere. On Nov. 16, she and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D–New York tried again by re-introducing their Military Justice Improvement Act in hopes that maybe this year, lawmakers in Washington will finally do something constructive.
“We have institutionalized and protected a process that does not result in justice for victims. I continue to call for the passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act to address this injustice, and thank Senator Gillibrand for her leadership on this critical issue,” said Hirono in a Nov. 16 news release from her office.
“The Military Justice Improvement Act would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault and remove the systemic fear that survivors of military sexual assault describe in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them,” said Gillibrand in the same news release. “I urge all of my colleagues who want to do something to combat sexual violence in our society to join me in cosponsoring this bipartisan bill to create a justice system worthy of the sacrifice of our service members. To do less is to knowingly perpetuate a failed system.”
Hirono’s staff told me the text of the proposed bill isn’t available yet, but did provide additional details on what the bill seeks to do. Basically, it would “grant the authority to send criminal charges to trial (disposition authority) to designated judge advocates (military lawyers) in the rank of O-6 [Colonel in the Army, Air Force and Marines; Captain in the Navy] or higher who possess significant criminal justice experience.” These judge advocates would be “outside the chain of command of the accused, exercise professional prosecutorial discretion when deciding whether to proceed to court martial and render decisions to proceed to trial that are free from outside influence and binding upon the Convening Authority.”
While this sounds good, I gave all the information provided by Hirono’s office to a friend of mine, a former military officer who’s dealt with sexual assault–both her own and that of soldiers under her command. Her assessment was simple–while the bill makes good progress, it should go further.
“This tackles a big portion of what’s wrong, but I think the military has failed to address the issue and should have zero jurisdiction over sexual assaults,” she said. “They have failed for decades to address the problem effectively, and I see the argument for good order and discipline as cutting against the military and not for it. Sexual assault degrades the effectiveness of the military to fight wars, and failures to hold offenders accountable have truly hurt mission readiness.”
A great deal of the problem here is that the military justice system is very different than that in the civilian world. “The military puts fighting a war before processing its own criminals–less bad PR for a commander or unit, more mission-oriented work accomplished, a Win-Win seemingly,” said my friend. “This bill would remove what is effectively considered a nuisance to some extent. When you consider the fact that sex offenders within the military who are hit with non-judicial punishment basically will not be registered sex offenders moving forward, the military puts the same society it is charged to protect at risk.”
The key then is to get as much of prosecution of sexual assault cases as possible out of the hands of the military. This, as is pointed out by the new legislation’s advocacy efforts, is consistent with many of our allies’ military processing of similar crimes.
“The bill would address some portion of the issue–it highlights the absence of uniformity, the command influence over both victims and the attorneys prosecuting these crimes and the failure to hold offenders accountable,” she said. “But I think completely removing sexual assaults from the jurisdiction of the military would better address the issue.”
Photo of Sen. Hirono courtesy U.S. Senate