Report: Commanders should keep authority over sexual assault cases

Senior military commanders should retain authority over sexual assault cases within their command, a congressionally-appointed panel said in a report released Thursday. 

The majority of the nine panel members, which included retired male and female military commanders, found that removing that authority would not reduce the incidence of sexual assault or increase reporting of assaults. 

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“Nor does the evidence indicate it will improve the quality of investigations and prosecutions or increase the conviction rate in these cases,” the report said. 

“Further, the evidence does not support a conclusion that removing such authority will increase confidence among victims of sexual assault about the fairness of the military justice system or reduce their concerns about possible reprisal for making reports of sexual assault,” it continued.

Reports of sexual assault in the military increased by 50 percent last year from the year before. In 2013, there were an estimated 26,000 incidents of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in the military, which gained high profile attention after members of Congress pushed for reform on the issue.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has spearheaded efforts to reduce the number of military sexual assaults but opposes removing a commander’s authority over such cases, applauded the panel’s finding. 

“After an exhaustive and careful study of the issue, these independent and diverse experts have reached an unequivocal conclusion — stripping commanders of their ability to launch courts-martial in sexual assault cases would not result in more prosecutions of predators or more protections for victims,” she said in a statement. 

The report comes as a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is expected to be up for a vote within the coming weeks. Gillibrand supports moving sexual assault cases outside the chain of command, citing unwillingness by some commanders to take appropriate action against such cases. 

A group supporting the removal of such authority pointed out that there was dissension among the panel members. 

"It is clear there is strongly argued dissension among members of the panel,” Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said in a statement Thursday. 

“The idea that anyone can argue that the status quo — leaving commanders responsible for what they have for so long promised and failed to accomplish for decades is ridiculous,” she said.