On March 3, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair will go on trial for eight criminal charges, including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and conduct unbecoming an officer. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Sinclair is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer ever charged with sexual assault. We hope that this is a signal that the military finally is getting serious about dealing with the high incidence of sexual assault within its ranks.
Sinclairs case is one of a number of high-profile assaults and arrests that occurred last year. The incidents triggered outrage in Congress and set in motion a debate over how to change the military justice system to encourage victims to report assaults and protect them when they do.
The focus on the problem might already be having an effect. Last year, the number of reported sexual assaults across all branches of the military shot up by more than 50 percent.
Defense officials say that might indicate that victims already are becoming more willing to come forward.
According to early data, there were more than 5,000 reports of sexual assault filed during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared to 3,374 in 2012. While defense officials are cautious about drawing too many conclusions from the data, focus groups and numerous meetings with service members throughout the year indicated that the figures dont simply represent a spike in the number of assaults.
In other words, while the number of assaults has remained steady, the number of reported cases has increased significantly.
Congress still must determine what changes will be made in the way the military adjudicates assault cases. For example, Congress is expected to vote this month on the hotly debated proposal to give military attorneys the authority to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases and other serious crimes. Those decisions now are made by military commanders.
Supporters of a bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., argue that ranking officers often are biased and reluctant to take action on complaints against troops under their command. Victims would have a better chance of getting a fair hearing, the bills supporters say, if neutral attorneys decide whether to prosecute.
But whatever the outcome, some progress apparently already has been made. The fact that the Pentagon has demanded reforms and all branches of the military have been directed to address the issue of sexual assaults is encouraging.
Changing the law is one thing. But coming to grips with the problem of sexual assault in the military also will require a change of attitude on the part of many commanders and a change of culture throughout the ranks.
That will take time, but the sooner the process begins, the better.