Five Ways Congress is Trying to Curb Rape in the Military
by Christie Thompson ProPublica, June 5, 2013
Photograph: Four F-15 Eagle pilots from the 3rd Wing walk to their respective jets at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, 2006. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown
When the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the US military's sexual assault crisis, lawmakers grilled Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine officials on the alarmingly high number of rapes and other sexual abuses in their ranks.
Political momentum to address the problem has been building since the Pentagon released statistics last month showing that sexual assault increased by 35 percent between 2010 and 2012. The outcry grew louder when a string of scandals came to light, including alleged sexual assaults by Army and Air Force officials who were in charge of preventing sexual abuse.
Senators have rushed to draft legislation to hold attackers accountable and provide support for victims. But at the Senate hearing, officials steadfastly opposed most major changes in the way sexual assault cases are prosecuted. "It will undermine the readiness of the force ... [and] will hamper the timely delivery of justice," said Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno.
Here's a rundown of key congressional proposals and what the military is saying about them.
1. Stop giving military commanders the final say on rape convictions
Under the military's criminal procedures, commanders have clemency powers, which means they can dismiss military court convictions "for any reason or no reason." The policy came under fire this spring when Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned a jury's ruling that Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fighter pilot, was guilty of aggravated sexual assault. Another official, Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, was blocked from a promotion in May for throwing out a captain's sexual assault conviction without any public explanation.
In April, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel voiced support for stripping commanders of this power. Under Hagel's proposal, commanders could still reduce someone's sentence but would have to submit a reason in writing. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have called for similar changes. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced a House bill that goes further, removing a commander's authority to overturn or reduce a judge's sentence.
Military officials are open to reforming the policy, though they say the Wilkerson case inflated outrage over a rarely-used power. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee and former Air Force lawyer, has been the only lawmaker to speak out against the proposed change in policy.
2. Have lawyers determine which assault cases are credible — not the defendant's boss
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has called for the most major shift in how the military tries sexual assault cases. Now, commanders decide which cases are investigated and prosecuted, and which are thrown out. Gillibrand's bill proposes giving independent military prosecutors that power for sex crimes and other serious charges. Commanders have an incentive to ignore rape allegations, advocates of the change say, because it reflects poorly on their leadership.
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