Pentagon Changes Protocol on Sexual Assault Cases

Independent lawyers, not commanders, will investigate them from now on
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 28, 2023 3:58 PM CST
Military Cedes Decisions on Sexual Assaults to Independent Lawyers
The Pentagon is seen on Aug. 27 in Virginia.   (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The US military on Thursday opened a new chapter in how it investigates and prosecutes sexual assault and other major crimes, putting independent lawyers in charge of those decisions and sidelining commanders after years of pressure from Congress. The change, long resisted by Pentagon leaders, was finally forced by members of Congress who believed that too often commanders would fail to take victims' complaints seriously or would try to protect alleged perpetrators in their units. The new law was fueled by a persistent increase in sexual assaults and harassment across the military, the AP reports.

The Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Navy all saw sexual assault reports go up last year, but a sharp 9% drop in reports from the Army—the largest military service—drove the overall number down. In 2021, assault reports spiked by 13%. Under the law, new special counsels will have the authority to make prosecution decisions on a number of major crimes, including murder, rape and several other sexual assault-related offenses, kidnapping, domestic violence, making or possessing child sexual abuse images, stalking, and retaliation. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called it "the most important reform to our military justice system since the creation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950."

It's unclear what impact the change will have on the broader problem of sexual misconduct in the military, including if it will trigger an increase in prosecutions and, if so, whether that will have any deterrent effect. Sean Timmons, managing partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm, which specializes in military cases, said the change doesn't get at the underlying behavioral problems. As a result, he said, it is unlikely to have any real impact. He said that it could result in more people being fired as a result of board proceedings but that in agreements in which the victims don't testify, the cases may end up being weaker. "Nothing will really change other than semantics and appearances," said Timmons, a former Army judge advocate general.

(More sexual assault in the military stories.)

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