Reports of sexual assault in military up 46 percent

Reports of sexual assault in the military increased sharply in the first nine months of fiscal 2013, the Pentagon said Thursday.

The Pentagon said it had 3,553 reports of sexual assault from October 2012 through June 2013 — a spike of 46 percent compared to the previous year.

Pentagon officials say the rise in reports of sexual assault is a positive development because it indicates that more victims of sexual assault are coming forward.

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While it’s not possible to definitively conclude that the increase is due to more reporting or a rise in the number of assaults, the Pentagon estimates it had 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, suggesting a vast majority of cases go unreported.

Last year, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault in the military.

The new statistics were presented Thursday to a congressionally mandated panel that is tasked with studying sexual assault in the military.

“A change in reports of sexual assault may reflect a change in victim confidence in DOD response systems,” a slide in the Pentagon’s presentation said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson said there was also an increased number of victims who reported assaults that occurred before they entered the military.

“We assess this increase in reports as consistent with a growing level of confidence in our response system,” Wilkinson said with a statement.

“These metrics provide indications that the wide range of sexual assault prevention and response initiatives over the past year and a half are having a positive impact throughout the force, as more victims are reporting and accessing [the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office] support,” she said.

The new sexual assault figures come as Congress is preparing to consider major changes to the Pentagon’s military justice system.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is proposing a measure that would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major criminal cases away from commanders and give it to military prosecutors.

Gillibrand argues that victims are not coming forward because they don’t believe their cases will be prosecuted and they fear retaliation from commanders.

Her measure, which will receive a vote on the defense authorization bill later this month, is opposed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Pentagon leaders.

McCaskill said the new figures showed some initial progress for the military in addressing its longstanding problems with sexual assault.

“These numbers, while a comfort to no one, represent progress — and hopefully show that with new protections in place, and historic reforms on the way, victims will have the confidence to come forward, without us removing all accountability from commanders,” McCaskill said in a statement.

"It also shows that a system that includes a role for commanders, and holds them accountable with historic reforms, will work for victims,” she said.

Gillibrand was hesitant to draw conclusions from the new data, saying more information was needed on the number of estimated assaults and cases prosecuted during the same period.

"Increased reporting is a good thing, but we need increased reporting, lower incident rates and increased accountability after someone reports," she said in a statement. "That's why we must create an independent military justice system so that when more service members do report they will have a fair shot at justice."

There has been widespread outrage in Congress this year over a series of incidents and the Pentagon report estimating 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact last year, up from 19,000 in 2010.

Congress has proposed a host of reforms, including stripping commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts and providing victims more protections in pre-trial proceedings.

There has been widespread division, however, over Gillibrand’s proposal to take cases out of the chain of command, leading to divisions among both Democrats and Republicans.

Gillibrand’s office says 47 senators back her measure. She is expected to need 60 to pass it as an amendment to the defense authorization bill. 

— This story was updated at 5:05 p.m.