AP Acquisition of Sexual Assault Records Spurs Controversy

AP Acquisition of Sexual Assault Records Spurs Controversy

The Associated Press recently obtained over 1,000 internal Department of Defense records through the Freedom of Information Act, causing a wave of political debate to ensue. These military records, depicting hundreds of sexual assault cases in graphic detail, are now being used to shed a critical light on how American service members are treated once accused of a sex crime.

In Japan, for example – the site of the United States' largest overseas military installation – most service members found guilty of sex crimes were fined, demoted, restricted to their bases, or removed from the military, rather than being incarcerated (a sentence only one third of culpable service members received). In two particular cases – both involving rape charges – commanders overruled court martial recommendations and elected to drop all charges instead.

News reports surrounding the documents' release highlight the inconsistency of judgments among military branches, painting the Marines with the most favorable brush; of 270 sex crime cases, the Marines sentenced 53 offenders to prison, whereas the Navy court-martialed 70 offenders and incarcerated 15 out of 203 cases. Similarly, reports are targeting the Air Force for its supposed leniency; of 124 sex crimes, 21 offenders received no more than a letter of reprimand.

Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, will likely cite the AP report in her fervent attempt to reform sexual assault prosecution in the military. Gillibrand's bill, expected to come before the Senate this week, purports to remove from senior officers the authority to determine how to prosecute sexual assault allegations, reassigning that authority to the trial counsel.

Air Force Colonel Alan Metzler, deputy director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, claims the Department "has been very transparent" that a problem exists. Col. Metzler has expressed his view that changes in military law will cultivate an environment in which victims can regain confidence in the court martial system, trusting that not only will their claims be taken seriously, but that their perpetrators will receive just treatment rather than special treatment. Likewise, Gillibrand and her vocal team of supporters agree that a cultural shift needs to occur within the military and will not occur unless the commander's role in the legal system undergoes a serious change.

Lory Manning, retired Navy captain and senior fellow at the Women in the Military Project, argues that such change is a long time coming. "Skippers have had this authority since the days of John Paul Jones and sexual assaults still occur . . . And this is where we are", Manning stated.

Opponents of Gillibrand's bill, on the other hand, argue that stripping a commander of his authority will do more harm than good. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), maintains that "[t]aking the commander out of the loop never solved any problem", arguing that doing so "would dismantle the military justice system beyond sexual assaults", as commanders shouldn't be "[let] off the hook for their responsibility to fix this problem."

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