Column: Commanders must fight sexual assault in military
August 29, 2013
A column by U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez originally publised in USA Today
As lawmakers, we approach issues big and small not just on policy specifics, but also on personal experience. Our views are shaped by our years spent outside the halls of Congress.
After a string of high-profile horror stories, alongside a disturbing new report exposing the staggering scope of the problem, public attention is now rightly focused on how to curb sexual assaults in our military. We can't let this opportunity pass. Congress has to get this right.
We approach this debate as Democratic women serving in a male-dominated Congress. We're senior members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively.
More to the point - one of us is a survivor of sexual assault, the other a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes. And those experiences shape our approach, and fuel our passion, to find the strongest possible reforms to achieve justice for survivors of these crimes.
The U.S. House has already approved its annual defense bill, and the Senate Armed Services Committee recently approved its version. Both bills currently include a host of aggressive reforms addressing how the military handles sexual assaults, acknowledged by all as historic. Combined, these bills include provisions to strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, install civilian review of decisions to not prosecute cases, mandate dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault, make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault, require commanders to include sexual harassment in performance evaluations to track and prevent further misconduct, eliminate the statute of limitations in these cases, and many others.
We believe these reforms represent the strongest multi-pronged approach to empower survivors, strengthen accountability, and purge our military of this epidemic.
An alternative plan under consideration would strip military commanders of their responsibility to decide which sexual assault cases go to criminal trials, and instead create a separate prosecutor's office outside the chain of command to handle such matters.
We view this as a risky approach for victims - one that would increase the risk of retaliation, weaken our ability to hold commanders accountable, and lead to fewer prosecutions.
Our approach would implement civilian review of decisions by commanders to not prosecute cases. But we strongly support retaining a commander's ability to initiate courts martial - a tool we believe is central to a commander's capacity to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account. Outside lawyers will never carry the broad authority and legitimacy of a military commander within a unit, or the close grasp of the culture and discipline.
We need to crack down on commanders' ability to abuse their authority, but there's no substitute for a commander who does it right.
We also know that it's impossible to hold someone accountable for fixing a problem when you strip them of their responsibilities for fixing that problem. Congress's ability to hold Pentagon leadership accountable for stamping out sexual assaults will only be slowed if commanders are no longer responsible for doing so.
Most importantly, we've dug into the hard data surrounding these crimes. Supporters of the proposal to strip commanders of their responsibilities promise that their approach will lead to an increase in reporting and prosecutions. But in just the past two years, we found 93 cases of rape and sexual assault that prosecutors declined to prosecute, which were then referred to court martial by commanders. That's 93 victims who had their day in court because commanders, not prosecutors, had the ability to refer cases for court martial.
Additionally, supporters of stripping commanders of their responsibility in these cases fail to note that while some of America's allies have done so, most countries who took this course did so to better protect the rights of defendants, not victims - and none saw an increase in reporting.
We believe that the many, significant, historic reforms currently contained in both the House and Senate defense bills achieve the strongest possible solution. And on behalf of the thousands of survivors of these crimes who never had their day in court, we're planning to fight side-by-side to keep those reforms intact, and get them across the finish line.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes, and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Cali.) is a survivor of sexual assault, and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.
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