Senior Army Officer, Brigadier General Jeremy A. Sinclair, was essentially slapped on the wrist after pleading guilty to massively reduced charges in what was perhaps the military’s most closely watched sexual assault case. The general’s sentence was announced on March 20th.
In exchange for pleading guilty to the abridged charges, which included disobeying a commander’s order and misuse of a government charge card, the prosecutors agreed to dismiss far more serious charges.
The charges being dropped involve accusations that he forced a female captain, who served as his Arabic-speaking adviser in the Army, to perform oral sex and even threatened to kill her family. According to the accuser, he also groped her on an airplane in plain view of other Army soldiers.
Sinclair was the highest-ranking Army officer to be tried for sexual assault. After all was said and done, his sentence was laughable. In lieu of jail time, he was only ordered to pay $24,100 in fines and $4,100 of restitution over four months for improper use of his official credit card. If that’s not bad enough, he wasn’t even demoted or dishonorably discharged from the Army. He’ll be able to keep his general’s pension and was even offered early retirement.
While the U.S. Armed Forces have faced decades of sexual assault accusations, the issue has received much more attention lately. There has been a dramatic rise in reported sexual assault cases in the military, mostly because of some efforts to shed light on the issue. Still, sexual offenders have faced few consequences for their actions and efforts to make real change have been almost totally ineffectual.
It is estimated that if you serve in the U.S. military and you sexually assault another member, there is an 86.5 percent chance of the crime being kept a secret and a 92 percent chance of the assailant avoiding court-martial. The Defense Department believes that in 2010, there were upwards of 19,000 incidents of sexual assault.
One of the main reasons women who have been sexually assaulted in the military don’t report the assault is because they are afraid of their commanding officers not taking the issue seriously, and of even protecting the assailant over the accuser. Of those who did report rape, some received psychiatric diagnoses resulting in their discharge from the military.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and supporters of her Military Justice Improvement Act recently spearheaded an attempt at reform with a bill introduced in Congress that would have taken prosecutorial discretion away from the military brass in the accused’s direct chain of command and put it in the hands of neutral military lawyers instead.
The bill also included stripping commanders’ power to overturn convictions and to give special victims counsel to anyone who reports sexual assault.
Although the bill got a 55-45 majority vote, it still was short of the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster.
Gillibrand’s campaign to fight sexual assault pretty much boiled down to this: when a member of the military reports a sexual assault, should those close to the accused and with some skin in the game have the ultimate say in whether or not the offender is prosecuted?
The 55 senators who supported the bill included all but three women. Senator Claire McCaskill was a leading voice against the bill. She maintained that those in the chain of command are best suited to ensure that cases of assault are prosecuted appropriately and that there is no evidence that the involvement of independent prosecutors would result in convictions of the most serious offenses.
Some members of Congress viewed Gillibrand’s bill as radical and felt it undermined the authority of military commanders over the troops they lead. Republican Lindsey Graham stated that Gillibrand’s bill was “social engineering run amuck” and that her bill would “create confusion amongst the ranks.”
Really? Confusion? How confusing is the message that if you sexually assault someone, you can expect to actually be prosecuted?
Keeping the prosecution in the hands of the chain of command keeps the door open for corruption. The accused may know their commander well enough to only have their wrist slapped, or in some cases, the commander actually is the accused. Either way, circumstances such as those can lead to the cover-up of an accusation.
What is needed is an impartial system to adjudicate cases of sexual assault in the military — a system over which the military has no jurisdiction whatsoever.
Only beyond the confines of the military justice system will victims feel empowered to come forth with their complaints of sexual abuse without fear of being derided, ostracized, or even discharged by their peers and superiors.
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