By Kristina Wong - 05/01/14 06:20 PM EDT
A new Pentagon report showing a 50 percent surge in sexual assault reports in the military last year is renewing a fight in Congress over whether the military justice system is in need of reform.
While administration officials say the report is evidence that changes to the military justice system have encouraged victims to step forward, several lawmakers said the findings call out for further action.
“Today’s report is deeply troubling and shows the scourge of sexual assaults has not been brought under control and our current military justice system remains broken,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a statement Thursday.
"There is no indication that this increase in reporting constitutes an increase in crime," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "We assess that this unprecedented increase is consistent with a growing confidence in the response systems."
The White House echoed that line.
“This sharp increase in reporting is related to an increase in trust in the system, which is a result of the significant changes that have been put in place just in the last two years,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
Gillibrand rejected those assertions, saying that without knowing the total number of estimated assault incidents, “it is impossible to draw any conclusions regarding the number of increased reports.”
Last year, the Pentagon said there were an estimated 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, but officials did not release an estimate of total cases for 2013.
“The DOD has released no evidence to prove its claim that victims have more trust in the existing military justice system or the treatment they have received,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders.
Gillibrand also said that while there was a 50 percent jump in cases reported, there was only a 0.6 percent increase in cases proceeding to trial.
“A system where only 1 out of 10 reported cases proceed to trial for a survivor to have a fair shot at receiving justice is simply not working," she said.
The Pentagon has come under intense pressure from lawmakers to reduce sexual assaults after a series of embarrassing and high-profile cases.
Reforms that have already been approved include stripping commanders’ ability to overturn convictions, assigning victims independent lawyers to protect their rights, making it a crime to retaliate against people who report assaults and requiring dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of a sexual assault.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday said he was issuing six new directives to further combat military sexual assault. The directives included reviewing policies to help troops consume alcohol more responsibly and efforts to help male victims step forward and seek support. The Pentagon will also review its sexual assault prevention strategy every two years.
“Every single person in the military, every single person, must take responsibility for helping stop sexual violence in the military,” Hagel said.
Still, reform advocates say that the current system, which gives commanders the decision-making authority on whether to prosecute a case, is flawed. They argue that some commanders are too lenient on the accused, or have an incentive not to report such cases, fearing it will reflect badly on their own leadership.
A proposal by Gillibrand to strip that decision-making authority from commanders and give it to military prosecutors outside the chain of command failed in the Senate this year, but aides said last month that she intends to continue pressing for its passage.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who co-sponsored the Gillibrand bill, said the reforms now in place do not go far enough.
“That more survivors of military sexual assault are reporting these heinous crimes is an important first step toward addressing and eliminating sexual assault within our military,” she said. “But it’s not enough, and we have to show the survivors who come forward that they will be heard and treated fairly, and implement a strong, zero tolerance sexual assault policy.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has been at odds with Gillibrand on taking the decision-making authority away from commanders, said the Pentagon report showed progress.
“These numbers show concrete progress as our recent sweeping reforms continue to take root and more victims have the confidence in the system to come out of the shadows and report these crimes,” she said in a statement Thursday.
“We know that the majority of survivors, both military and civilian, choose not to report their assaults — but this data suggests that the number of brave men and women in uniform choosing to pursue justice is increasing. Ultimately, one sexual assault is still one too many, so while these numbers represent progress, our fight is far from over,” she said.