More cases of military sexual assault are being reported, but fewer are being referred to courts-martial because commanders are increasingly relying on administrative action and discharges for accused offenders, according to the latest report on sexual assaults in the military.
The drop in courts-martial may be due in part to changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice since 2012, said Nate Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
“In our conversations with military justice attorneys, they’ve talked a little bit about how the rules have changed — that you need more evidence to go forward in certain cases than others,” Galbreath told reporters on Monday. “So that reduces the percentage that they may be able to take action on because they need more evidence. Some of those cases went into ‘insufficient evidence of a crime to prosecute.’”
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When pressed on whether changes in the UCMJ have made it harder to prosecute sexual assault cases, Galbreath replied, “I can’t say that.”
Overall, the number of reported cases of sexual assault rose nearly 10%, from 6,172 in fiscal 2016 to 6,769 in fiscal 2017, Pentagon statistics show. The Army reported 2,706 cases of sexual assault, an increase of 8.4%; the Navy reported 1,585 cases, an increase of 9.3%; the the Air Force reported 1,480 cases, an increase of 9.2%; and the Marine Corps saw a nearly 15% increase, with a total of 998 reported cases.
The percentage of substantiated sexual assault cases in which charges were preferred to courts-martial has dropped from 71% in fiscal 2013 to 54% in fiscal 2017, according to the data. In that same time period, the percentage of cases resolved through administrative action and discharges has increased from 12 to 26%.
“This probably reflects more of victim choice here,” Galbreath said. “Because it’s very, very challenging to go through the court-martial process and testify, victims may opt to not testify. Rather, commanders are now left with administrative actions and discharges to hold people appropriately accountable. That’s probably why we saw an increase in those.”
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Galbreath stressed that the Pentagon cannot mandate that a certain number of sexual assault cases go to court-martial, because doing so would be considered unlawful command influence, and the alleged offenders would be able to walk free. In May 2017, an airman’s conviction for rape and assault was overturned over the appearance of unlawful command influence by Air Force leadership.
The Service Women’s Action Network issued a statement on Monday decrying the drop in courts-martial and convictions for sexual assault.
“An increase in reporting is only good if it leads to justice,” Lydia Watts, CEO of the group, said in the statement. “It hasn't. Despite the increase in reporting, actual convictions from sexual assault reports have decreased over the last three years. The military is encouraging victims to come forward, and when they do, it hangs them out to dry.”