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Senators Say Congress Should Act To Reduce Sexual Assault In The Military

NOEL KING, HOST:

Is the U.S. military prosecuting sexual assault allegations effectively? In 2019, there were around 7,800 reports involving service members. Only 7% of cases pursued resulted in a conviction. That's according to the Defense Department. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would like a change, and to that end, she's unveiling a bill tomorrow with the backing of Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa. Senator Gillibrand, good morning, and thanks for being with us.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Good morning.

KING: How does the military handle allegations of assault, currently?

GILLIBRAND: So today, after the military police conduct an investigation, they give their file to the commander, to senior-level commanders, and then they decide whether or not to prosecute the case. We believe that because that decision rests within the command, a lot of survivors do not come forward because oftentimes the command climate is not supportive. They also will say they won't come forward because they believe the command may well be biased. Commanders are typically not lawyers. They have the help of their JAGs, who are generalists, who often spend very little time in criminal justice.

And what we found over the last 10 years is that they just aren't picking the right cases to go to trial. They're not trying enough cases. And very few cases are ending in conviction. And despite so many reforms that we've put in place over the last eight years, things just aren't getting better. And survivors have no faith in the system.

KING: Not picking the right cases, not prosecuting the right cases. Do you think that is deliberate, or are commanders just ill-equipped to do this?

GILLIBRAND: I think it's a little of both.

KING: OK.

GILLIBRAND: They're certainly not lawyers, and they're not criminal justice lawyers. But oftentimes there is bias when it's a he-said, she-said case. And I've looked at every case, several years, at four of the largest military bases to see how do these cases turn out. When it's he-said, she-said, more often than not, they believe the he, the perpetrator. The perpetrator is often more senior, more valuable to the unit. And when you are a sexual assault predator, you often will target your victim. You'll target your victim by choosing someone very junior, someone who maybe has a credibility issue, someone you could easily give alcohol to or drugs to. And predators tend to be recidivists. They do these crimes over and over again. And unfortunately, sometimes these predators are very good at their day jobs. And so as a consequence, it's very hard for these commanders to sift through complex cases.

These are among the hardest cases for any prosecutor to prosecute effectively. But we believe that if you gave the decision to trained military prosecutors, they would make a better decision. They would pick the right cases to move forward to trial, and more cases would end in conviction. And if you want to change the culture and start convicting predators and rapists and make sure they go to jail, that will send a message that this crime is not tolerated.

KING: So your solution is trained military prosecutors. Is that a job that currently exists, or is your bill arguing that there just needs to be a new position created?

GILLIBRAND: No, they already exist. They already are responsible for, ultimately, trying the case. But because the commander has all the authority - they pick the judge, the jury, the prosecutor and the defense counsel. They look at the file, and they decide whether the case goes to trial. Survivors, unfortunately, feel that that decision that they make is biased or unfair, and enough cases aren't going to trial, and enough cases aren't ending in conviction.

So we looked at other countries and how they handle these cases, and a lot of our allies long ago took this decision out of the chain of command and gave it to trained military prosecutors for all serious crimes because they believe that that professionalism was fairer, both for the plaintiff and the defendant. Some countries did it just for defendants' rights because they felt that if the commander could put you to jail for more than a year, that that decision had to be fair.

KING: OK. This is now a bipartisan effort. Republican Senator Joni Ernst has signed on. How important is that?

GILLIBRAND: It's very important because this has to be widely bipartisan. There's very few bills in the Senate today where you have both Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, as well as Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And adding Joni Ernst, a combat veteran, only female combat veteran in the Republican Party in the Senate, to this bill is very powerful.

KING: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York joining us this morning on Skype. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

GILLIBRAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.