The Ongoing Battle to Remove Military Sexual Assault Prosecution From the Chain of Command
As the Senate Armed Services Committee meets Wednesday to take up its version of the Defense Authorization bill, senators will likely devote at least as much verbiage to discussion of sexual assault in the military ranks as they do to the finer points of the Pentagon budget that is the bill’s main focus. But missing from the committee’s final version of the bill will be the one measure that advocates for survivors of sexual assault and rape say is critical to ending the crisis that grips the military: removing the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault cases from the chain of command.
Despite its bipartisan support and 27 co-sponsors, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the committee chairman, struck from the bill a measure offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have moved the adjudication of all serious crimes (such as murder, rape, and sexual assault) into the hands of independent prosecutors in order to create a safer environment and more impartial judicial process for those who have been the targets of assailants in the military ranks.
Levin made the decision Tuesday, replacing the provisions of Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act with a measure that simply requires that any command decision not to prosecute a sexual assault case be reviewed by a high-ranking officer. But as demonstrated in at least one recent case—the overturning of the sexual assault conviction of Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin—the top brass often exhibit the same deference to defendants as commanders lower in rank.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has condemned Levin’s decision. “They basically embrace the status quo here. It’s outrageous,” she told the New York Times.
As Gillibrand and others noted in a June 4 day-long hearing on sexual assault in the military, victims often don’t come forward because of well-founded fears of reprisal by their commanders. Testimony by victims’ advocates laid out a picture of a landscape on which retaliation against those who report sexual assaults—including being drummed out of the service on the basis of mental-health diagnoses made by military medical personnel—seemed almost as common as the assaults themselves.
Citing a recent Pentagon report that estimated some 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact experienced by members of the military at the hands of others in the ranks, Gillibrand addressed a panel of top military officials: “Of the victims who did report ... 62 percent said they received retaliation.”
Of those estimated 26,000 incidents, only 3,300 were reported, and fewer than 200 went to trial.