Last week’s slap on the wrist handed down by a military court to Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair is but the latest example demonstrating the need to reform the way sexual assault cases are handled by the military.
Sinclair, who was accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate, received no prison time and was sentenced to a reprimand and a $20,000 fine as part of a plea deal under which prosecutors dropped sexual assault charges in exchange for Sinclair pleading guilty to committing adultery – a crime in the military – with one woman and conducting inappropriate relationships with two others.
The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill on March 10 that makes big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault. That vote came a week after the chamber defeated a bill by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have stripped commanders of the authority to prosecute sexual assault cases and transfer it to military lawyers outside the chain of command.
The bill approved by the Senate would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as part of his defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.
The measure also would give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are heard in military or civilian courts, increase the accountability of commanders and extend all changes related to sexual assault cases to the service academies.
The bill’s fate is uncertain in the U.S. House, where bipartisan companion legislation has been introduced.
While the Senate bill falls well short of what supporters of reform seek, it is not only a positive first step in coming to grips with the problem but an open acknowledgement that the military justice system is not doing a good job of prosecuting sexual assault cases.
The Pentagon has estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012. It’s past time for these folks to receive justice.