The U.S. military's sexual assault problem has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years, but a recent Department of Defense report suggests that the epidemic has only gotten worse.
An estimated 26,000 troops said they experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012, an increase of 37 percent from the previous year. Yet less than 1 percent of last year's military sexual assault cases resulted in conviction. The report, paired with a number of recent high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, has incited calls to reform the military's justice system from the outside.
The most promising proposal is a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., which would transfer authority over complaints of sexual misconduct and other serious crimes from military commanders to military prosecutors outside the chain of command. Commanders have the power to decide whether serious crimes are brought to trial, but this discretion ought to be given instead to qualified, independent lawyers without interest in a case's outcome. The bill also would abate commanders' power to overturn guilty verdicts for serious crimes.
This reform would better ensure the impartiality and accuracy of trials, encourage victims of sexual violence to report crimes and ensure a higher conviction rate.
Unsurprisingly, military leaders roundly opposed removing oversight of crimes from the jurisdiction of commanders in a Senate hearing last Tuesday. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the reform would not work and would "hamper the delivery of justice," citing "the central role of the commander" in maintaining order.
But if the Defense Department's figures are any indication, the military's justice system has already proven a resounding failure at preventing and trying incidents of sexual assault. The burden should fall on those who oppose Ms. Gillibrand's bill to justify the need for charges of such crimes to be assessed by commanders without legal background and with significant conflicts of interest.
Beginning with reforms like the Gillibrand bill, the military will have the opportunity to become an institution that defies rather than mirrors the nation's sexual assault problem. The military -- where order, discipline and cohesion are requisite -- is better positioned than civilian society to oust the scourge of sexual violence from its ranks.