Accountability Actions in Sexual Assault Cases

By Rear Adm. Sean Buck
Director, 21st Century Sailor Office

Several national papers ran a wire service article this weekend that analyzed sex crimes reported in Japan between 2005 and early 2013.  The article made it clear that military leaders recognize that sexual assault is a crime that destroys trust, divides teams and degrades the military’s operational effectiveness.  Unfortunately, the article provides numbers without context or background. Without rebutting the article point by point, I want to raise a few issues that should be considered.

First, it’s important to note that there are multiple offenses covered under Article 120 of the UCMJ, ranging from rape to non-penetrating contact offenses, such as groping. Second, each case is judged on its own merits, and if there is a conviction, the sentencing is awarded based on the unique facts in that case.

The article might lead Sailors to think that commanders – particularly those in Japan — do not take their responsibility to make accountability decisions in sexual assault cases seriously. This is simply not true. In Japan, as in all other locations, every report of sexual assault is and will continue to be taken seriously, fully investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), and presented to commanders for action as appropriate.

NCIS agents and commanders do not work alone. Vice Adm. Nan DeRenzi, Judge Advocate General of the Navy, has noted the involvement military lawyers have in the process. “Prosecuting attorneys and staff judge advocates work with NCIS and commanders every step of the way,” she said, “offering legal advice on investigative actions and advising commanders on the appropriate disposition of cases.” Cases which may warrant trial by general court-martial go through an Article 32 pretrial investigation process that is presided over by a judge advocate who makes recommendations regarding proper disposition. Then, before any case is referred to a general court-martial, the commander’s staff judge advocate provides separate written advice as to appropriate disposition.

If you read my blogs you know that a lot is happening, not just in Japan, but around the world to prevent sexual assault in our Navy. The truth is, only relatively recently did we begin to understand the magnitude of the challenge. As soon as we learn, we act – and not just piece by piece, but along the entire continuum of care.

We’ve created changes in our reporting, investigative, and adjudicative procedures – changes which have earned critical trust and resulted in increased reporting, which deepen our understanding.

First and foremost, responsibility for fostering a climate intolerant of sexual assault lies with our commanding officers. They, along with their executive officers and senior enlisted advisors, have the responsibility of creating a professional command climate that will not tolerate, condone or ignore sexist language and behavior, hazing, sexual harassment, or sexual assault. Over the past year, we have aggressively implemented a variety of new initiatives designed to improve victim confidence, including reforms to the military justice system, creation of dedicated legal support to victims, enhanced access to victim advocacy, and increased training and awareness for the entire force.

The FY14 NDAA provided the most sweeping reform to the Uniform Code of Military Justice since 1968 – over 30 different military justice provisions that are intended to enhance victims’ rights and improve the military justice process.   The Navy believes that these reforms significantly strengthen our prevention and response program.

If we are to continue to gain the trust of service members, then we must ensure that our process of investigation and adjudication not only protects the due process rights of the accused but also fully respects victims’ rights, to include that the victim be protected from the accused, accorded every means of privacy, and treated with dignity and respect.

And in fact, we’ve already seen a significant increase in reporting this year; a 46 percent increase since last year. That’s good. That proves to me that the awareness level of this problem has already improved. Faith in our process is growing to the point that more victims are now coming forward.  I’m hoping that sooner than later, the survey data will match the reporting data.  Both numbers need to come down.

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