On Tuesday, Mar. 4, an important trial begins at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. At the same time, in Washington, D.C., a debate is poised to take shape involving the very issue the Fort Bragg trial is representative of. Such parallels are rare, Yale Law School’s Eugene R. Fidell told The New York Times, but that doesn’t make them any less important.
In Fort Bragg, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair is facing charges that he assaulted a junior officer and forced her to perform sexual acts on him. Meanwhile, in Washington, lawmakers are set to meet and discuss whether or not military commanders should have the power to decide whether or not allegations of sexual assault (and other serious crimes) will see trial. That power, according to proponents of changing the law, should be kept with military prosecutors only.
New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is one of those proponents. Gillibrand has been fighting Pentagon officials and the Senate Armed Services Committee in order to have her voice heard, but as of right now, she only has 55 public supporters. CBS reports that she’ll likely need that number to climb up to 60 in order to pass the measure. Another Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill from Missouri, doesn’t want to strip military commanders of their power of pushing accusations to trial. Instead, she’s pushing to overturn commanders’ ability to overturn convictions.
But why strip military commanders of this power? The chance is always present that they could be acting not in the best interest of the individual who’s brought up the allegations, but opting for what’s best for soldier morale — or even their own careers.
This debate comes in the shadow of rising civilian crime rates relating to guns and assault weapons. Indeed, being charged with assault with a deadly weapon or aggravated assault can be either misdemeanors or felonies. The distinction depends on the class of the person threatened as well as the type of force threatened. Either way, there’s a large degree in variability for the final punishments.
When it comes to military trials, such as in the case of Sinclair, the punishment for sexual assault could be life in prison. That’s if he’s found guilty of the most serious offense, forcible sodomy. Sinclair may also face the sex offender registration if convicted.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel argues that the number of sexual assaults reported in the military has gone up, but that should be seen as a sign of progress. The problems haven’t disappeared entirely, but certain steps (like the 2014 defense authorization passed in December) have been taken in order to work towards building a solution.
“People haven’t reported because they’ve been ostracized or it’s been the victim’s fault,” Hagel told CBS. “And we’re changing that. We’re not where we need to be yet.”