The coincidence of the two news stories could hardly have been more potent. On the front page of Monday’s Buffalo News was an article by Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski on the rising and well-deserved influence of Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., mainly on the strength of her persistent efforts to reform the way the U.S. military handles sexual assaults.
Yet a story inside the same edition documented the need, even in the face of continued resistance, for Gillibrand’s legislation, or a serious alternative. The story was replete with shocking details. At U.S. military bases in Japan, most service members found culpable in sex crimes did not go to prison. Their punishments were generally limited to fines, demotions, restriction to base or expulsion from the military.
In more than 1,000 records reviewed by the Associated Press, representing sex crimes reported between 2005 and 2013, the Air Force was the most lenient service. Of 124 sex crimes, the only punishment for 21 offenders was a letter of reprimand.
The inconsistency in dealing with sexual assaults is striking. In two cases adjudicated by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, accusers said they were sexually abused after nights of heavy drinking. Both had evidence supporting their cases. Yet, while one suspect was sentenced to six years in prison, the other was merely confined to his base for 30 days.
That’s why Gillibrand is on the right track in seeking to remove prosecution of military sexual assaults from commanders and give it to trained prosecutors. It’s why she is on the right track, despite protests of some in the military and in Congress that cutting commanders out would harm military discipline. Plainly, discipline is already out the window in these cases and military commanders have done little to close it, let alone give victims – women and men who are serving their country – assurance that their reports of sexual assault will be taken seriously.
What is certain is that this problem would not be receiving the attention it is today without Gillibrand’s relentless focus. That has caused some friction within Congress, but that’s fine. Some people in Congress cause friction by voting to shut down the government when they don’t get what they want; others do it by pursuing critical issues that go to the heart not just of our criminal justice system but also of the nation’s military readiness.
Many New Yorkers harbored doubts about Gillibrand’s selection to succeed Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate when Clinton resigned to become secretary of state. Gillibrand was largely unknown outside her Hudson Valley district and she was succeeding one of the world’s best-known women. But she has shown herself to be a fine selection, and perhaps one of the best decisions made by then-Gov. David Paterson.
Gillibrand should continue to push to remove discretion over sexual assault cases from the chain of command, which has shown itself to be both incompetent and indifferent. This is a crucial matter and Americans who care about the military, and the treatment of members who are sexually abused, can be grateful that Gillibrand shows no signs of backing off.