The recent report on the handling of sex crimes at U.S. military bases in Japan makes clear that military justice is neither swift nor impartial – and often is nonexistent.
The investigation by the Associated Press of hundreds of sexual abuse cases filed in America’s largest military installation found that most service members found guilty of crimes did not go to prison and often escaped with only a fine, a demotion or confinement to their bases. In many cases, even where strong evidence that abuse had occurred, charges were dropped altogether.
The numbers tell the story. In the Air Force, which was the most lenient of the services, of 124 sex crimes, the only punishment for 21 offenders was a letter of reprimand.
Few offenders went to prison. Of the Navy’s 203 cases, while more than 70 were court-martialed or punished in some way, only 15 were sentenced to time behind bars. The Marines were more likely to dole out prison sentences, but nonetheless only 53 offenders went to prison out of 270 cases.
In all, of the 244 service members whose punishments were detailed in military records, only a third were incarcerated.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the number of allegations that were simply ignored or given short shrift. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped the charges instead. In hundreds of other cases, charges were significantly reduced.
This is not ancient history. The cases were filed between 2005 and early 2013.
Despite reports such as this one by the AP as well as numerous hearings in Congress, little appears to have changed in the way the military addresses abuse cases.
The number of sexual assault reports has increased significantly in recent months. And in one sense, that might represent good news if it is an indication that victims are more willing to step forward and make accusations.
But a culture shift is needed across the board in all branches of the service. The standard response has been to tolerate sexual assaults, ignore them or dispense of them with a slap on the wrist, and that has to change.
While the military must work to change an environment in which too many sexual crimes go unpunished, Congress can make policy changes that encourage fairer hearings for victims. The report from Japan lends credence to critics who say that senior officers should not have the authority to decide whether serious crimes, including sexual assault cases, go to trial.
A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who leads the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, would strip officers of that authority and require that trained military prosecutors review cases and make decisions based on the merit of the evidence alone, not extraneous factors. The measure is opposed by much of the military brass and by many in Congress, and has been given little chance of passing.
But with continuing stories of injustice and a spiraling number of sexual assault reports, the fate of the bill might be shifting. Congress can’t wait for the military to clean its own house.