April 18, 2012 — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday outlined a series of new policies to reduce sexual assault in the military and "fundamentally change" the way the Pentagon handles such cases, the Christian Science Monitor reports (Mulrine, Christian Science Monitor, 4/17).
The plan's central provision -- which Panetta said he would implement through an executive order -- will require all sexual assault cases to be handled by senior officers rather than unit officials, which he said would lead to more prosecutions. The plan would create new units within each branch of the armed forces to collect evidence and interview complainants (Dao, "At War," New York Times, 4/17). The new "special victims unit" also will help prepare military lawyers to prosecute sexual assault cases (Ellison, Daily Beast, 4/18).
Additional parts of the plan include the creation of specially trained units within each branch of the military to investigate sexual assault cases, a requirement that all incoming service members are briefed on sexual assault policies within two weeks of reporting to duty, record keeping on all disciplinary actions related to sexual assault cases, and allowing National Guard and reserve troops who file complaints to remain on active duty while their cases are investigated. Each year, unit commanders would be required to conduct assessments to ensure their units were adhering to the policies ("At War," New York Times, 4/17).
The announcement comes shortly after the Pentagon's release of its fiscal year 2011 report on sexual assault in the military. According to the report, 3,192 assaults were reported in 2011; however, the Pentagon estimates that only 15% of assaults are reported, likely placing the real number around 19,000 assaults annually.
Under the military's current system, sexual assault cases are handled within the military's chain of command, which means that unit officers handling such cases often know both the complainant and the accused offender. The report noted that nearly 70% of substantiated, "actionable" cases never go to trial because of lower-level command decisions (Daily Beast, 4/18).
Response to Policy Changes
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, called the decision to move sexual assault cases out of the chain of command "a huge step in the right direction." She said she hopes the change "will have the intended effect of ensuring sexual assault cases are handled by more experienced officers who are better equipped to properly determine the disposition of these difficult, complex criminal cases."
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) praised the new plan but said the Pentagon should do more to inform service members of new protections for sexual assault survivors that Congress approved last year, including access to legal counsel and the right to transfer units ("At War," New York Times, 4/17).
Panetta Taking 'Encouraging Steps' To Address Military Sexual Assault Problem, Editorial Says
A New York Times editorial commends Panetta's effort to address sexual assault in the military "by increasing prosecutions, not just by increasing awareness or sensitivity."
The editorial notes that there is still "more to do," including enacting the reforms into law through Congress, as well as making sure "victims know their rights" and are "able to pursue claims in federal courts if military justice fails." Although Panetta "has taken steps in the right direction," the "military is a long way from healing itself," the editorial concludes (New York Times, 4/17).