U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk.
“We trust our commanders to take our sons and daughters into war,” said Luria, a former commander in the U.S. Navy. “We trust them to make decisions when people are risking their lives. But yet we’re sitting here [debating] whether we trust them to make decisions regarding people in their command. I believe there’s a disconnect.”
Luria spoke during a hearing Tuesday in the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel that explored commanders’ role in sexual assault prosecutions. It was chaired by California Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat who plans to introduce legislation this Congress that would empower independent special prosecutors with decision-making authority in military sexual assault cases.
Despite reforms, assault rates remain “way too high” and reporting rates are “perilously low,” Speier said. “Victims of sexual assault spend the rest of their lives coping with the mental and physical aftereffects” of abuse while “perpetrators often get off Scott-free.”
Sexual violence and harassment is pervasive in the military — and more common than in civilian life, according to Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit organization in Northern Virginia. Some 15,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted in 2016, and the vast majority of victims (81 percent) did not report the crime.
Despite reforms, retaliation is common against those who do report, and prosecution and conviction rates are low. In 2017, only eight percent of “unrestricted reports” of sexual assault and rape were tried by court-martial, and only three percent of offenders were convicted of a nonconsensual sexual offense, according to Protect Our Defenders.
“Something here is fundamentally broken, and we need to act urgently,” Speier said, adding that she’s “convinced” that transferring power to independent prosecutors is a key part of the solution.
Three witnesses who experienced sexual assault during their military careers shared the sentiment. The current system, in which commanders decide how to respond to reports of sexual assault and harassment, creates a conflict of interest that often undermines victims, they said.
Luria, who commanded a combat-ready unit of 400 sailors before winning election in 2018, told the Virginia Mercury that this issue is “very important” but disagrees with Speier’s solution – and said she’s not alone. “In my casual conversations with people on both sides of the aisle, I really haven’t found anyone who thinks this is a good idea.”
She said commanders’ decision-making authority is “inextricably tied” to their ability to command and to instill good order and discipline in their units.
But Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the U.S. Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, disagreed. “There is nothing inherent to command that qualifies someone to make prosecution decisions,” he testified.
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