Military sexual assault reform pledge backed by majority of presidential candidates

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One of the preeminent service member sexual assault awareness organizations has the support of most presidential candidates, and at least slight consideration from the second highest military official, in an effort to change the way the most serious crimes in the military are prosecuted.

All but four of the major candidates running for president signed on to the Protect Our Defenders’ pledge. The promise calls for crimes like rape, murder, sexual assault and domestic abuse to be prosecuted by independent military prosecutors rather than military commanders.

The four candidates yet to sign on to the pledge are Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and Joe Walsh.

“In the regular justice system a victim would go to the police, the police would investigate, that investigation would be turned over to a prosecutor, and they would make the decision based on the laws and facts whether or not to pursue that case,” Protect Our Defenders President Don Christensen told Federal News Network.

In the military, the service does the investigation.

“The investigation is turned over to a commander who knows the accused,” Christensen said. “The commander makes the decision whether or not to go forward. Then the higher-up commander will make the decision if it goes to trial. None of those commanders are attorneys. They might be a pilot, an artillery officer or a surface warfare officer and they are making very complex legal decisions.”

The most recent Defense Department report on sexual assault in the military estimated 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted in 2018, that’s compared to nearly 15,000 in 2016.

“The Pentagon has been promising for 30 years that they are going to fix sexual assault, but they haven’t,” Christensen said. “I think one of the driving factors that the numbers are going the wrong way is it seems that they Pentagon has given up on accountability. In 2015, the Pentagon prosecuted about 600 sex assault cases and got about 250 convictions. In 2018, that plummeted to about 300 sex assault cases prosecuted with about 108 convictions, despite record high sexual assault reports. When a woman or man comes forward the odds of them ever seeing their offender held accountable is almost zero.”

The pledge comes from the Military Justice Improvement bill, which garnered bipartisan support, but has yet to make it past the Senate.

“Repeated testimony from survivors and former commanders says that the widespread reluctance on the part of survivors to come forward and report is due to the bias and inherent conflicts of interest posed by the military chain of command’s sole decision-making power over whether cases move forward to a trial,” a fact sheet on the bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) states.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten said he is open to any option to address sexual assault in the military, but also said he thought it would be hard to do that without the chain of command.

“The one thing I know from almost 40 years in the military is that no problem in the military has ever been solved without the tight buy in of the chain of command,” Hyten said Jan. 31 at an Air Force Association event in Washington. “In the chain of command is not part of a solution, the problem in the military will never be fixed. I know that’s true. There has to be a balance there. There has to be a new ways of looking at these things. But you have to have tight involvement with the chain of command.”

The pledge would require a bill from Congress and a signature from the president to change the military law on prosecutions.

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