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Congress may change how military handles sexual assault, other serious crimes

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand meets members of the 106th Rescue Wing in 2012. (U.S. Army photo by Senior Airman Christopher Muncy)

Next year’s military appropriation bill could move the decision to prosecute serious crimes by military service members — including sexual assault — out of the chain of command. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a longtime advocate for the change, announced last week that she had the measure included in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The risk of sexual assault and harassment is not shared evenly across the military. According to a report last month from RAND, the risk for service members, even service members with similar characteristics, varies across installations. Of the installations studied, Fort Gordon had the lowest adjusted risk for women.

“Risk to women, this is for women, at Fort Gordon, is … more than one percentage point lower than you would expect for those women if they were at a different installation,” said Andrew Morral, one of the authors of the study.

In other words, women at other military facilities a 5% risk of sexual assault. At Fort Gordon, the risk would be less than 4%. Although he could not speak specifically to Fort Gordon, Morral said there seem to be two factors that help create safer environments.

“In installations where the climate, the unit and leadership climate is better, more sensitive to these kinds of concerns, there is less sexual assault and sexual harassment,” he said. “We find that installations that have a larger proportion of civilians are safer installations for women.”

Anne Bowman, deputy public affairs officer for Fort Gordon, said the installation could not comment on how many instances of sexual assault have been reported or prosecuted.

“At this time we cannot talk specifically about case numbers reported on Fort Gordon nor do we feel it is appropriate to compare Fort Gordon to other military installations as no two are alike,” Bowman wrote to the Chronicle in an email. “We cannot speculate on why Fort Gordon ranked as a low-risk installation in the June 18th Rand report.”

Bowman also said Fort Gordon could not discuss the proposed changes to Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention processes proposed by Gillibrand and others.

“Along similar lines, regarding how the SHARP processes might change or look, the Army does not comment on pending legislation,” she wrote.

Advocates of the proposal to move sexual assault and other major crimes out of the chain of command say it will take the decision from officers with no legal training to independent and experienced prosecutors. The House Armed Services Committee will consider the proposal during a specific committee hearing on changes to military justice in the NDAA that has not yet been scheduled, according to the office of Rep. Jackie Speier, chair the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee.

President Joe Biden has advocated moving sexual assault out of the chain of command but not other serious crimes, and has supported the recommendations of an Independent Review Commission on sexual assault.

Morral said that his team had not studied the impact of removing prosecutions for sexual assault from the chain of command.

“My hunch is that that will increase prosecutions and professionalize them,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big prevention measure. I don’t think that it’s going to necessarily lead to a lot fewer sexual assaults. I think there’s still going to be a central role for especially junior leaders in the military to recognize risk factors and prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

Morral said there is still a lot that is not well understood about preventing sexual assault in the military, but that there are some things that leadership should look to change.

According to another recent RAND study, sexual minorities — lesbian, gay and bisexual service members — made up about 12 percent of service members in 2018 but 43 percent of sexual assault victims.

“I think that a lot of sexual assaults may be — may look a lot more like hate crimes than the stereotypical sexual assault that is often top of mind,” Morral said. “And I think that the prevention strategies for those kinds of assaults may look quite different from the prevention strategies for the kind of sexual assaults that have been the focus of most prevention trainings in the military.”

Morral said that sexual assault is often not visible to junior leadership, but sexual harassment is much easier to track — and provides an opportunity for leadership to crack down on troubling behavior.

“The association between sexual harassment and sexual assault is lockstep,” he said. “When there’s sexual harassment there’s sexual assault. It’s like smoke and fire … The fact that sexual harassment is visible creates an opportunity, I think, to target those early behaviors, before they become crimes.”


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