On Friday of last week, the Department of Defense issued its Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. First conducted in 2004, this report has helped shine a light on the severity and scope of the crisis of rape in the US military. The disturbing statistics that have been reported include the stunning estimate that, in FY 2010, there were 19,000 sexual assaults among Active Duty personnel.
The 2011 report validates our worst fears. The data shows that the military's handling of sexual assaults is getting worse, much worse. Charges, courts-martial and convictions plummeted, but there is absolutely no indication that sex crimes decreased.
But while the report is extremely troubling, of even greater concern is the Pentagon's determined effort to confuse and misinform the public about its own findings.
The Pentagon has chosen to emphasize a one minor ripple in the data that could be considered an improvement: the 10% increase in the percentage of sexual assault related charges that resulted in court-martials trials. In reality: Charges have decreased, courts-martial fell and convictions plummeted.
By numbers: In 2010, 1,025 actions were taken by commanders on the grounds of sexual assault, in 2011 there 791 -- a decrease of 23%. The number of initiated court-martials fell 8%, from 529 in 2010 to 489 in 2011. The number of perpetrators convicted of committing a sexual assault decreased 22%, from 245 in 2010 to 191 in 2011.
In short, fewer commanders decided to bring charges and of those charged many fewer were successfully prosecuted.
The goal should be to decrease assaults, significantly. That means creating a climate that encourages reporting. This, with more effective investigations, more frequent charges and more effective prosecution would increase the number of court-martials and convictions and ultimately reduce the number of attacks.
Secretary Panetta could have used this abysmal report as an opportunity to boldly address what he calls the core of the problem: a lack of convictions. But instead of fundamental reform, Secretary Panetta announced that he would institute incremental and not entirely new policy "changes," such as special victims' units, mandatory command climate surveys and moving the authority for these cases up the chain of command. Many of these have already been adopted in the various services and, according to their own data, have not reduced the problem.
Similar to previous so-called reforms, these policy changes do little to address the fundamental barriers to justice: commander discretion and a military justice system that stacks the deck against the victim.
This year's SAPRO report revealed that of the 2,410 reports of sexual assault, 191 -- 8% -- resulted in a court-martial conviction. This sobering fact goes a long way toward explaining why so few victims decide to report. It is evidence of the utter failure to protect the victim and effectively prosecute the perpetrator.
US Marine Lt. Ariana Klay puts face to this abysmal statistic. According to Klay, she was gang raped by fellow service members. One of her perpetrators was among the 191 in the 2011 report "convicted" last year. He spent 45 days in the brig for adultery and indecent language, was paid $7,000 a month while incarcerated and no mark was left on his permanent record. The second perpetrator was granted complete immunity to testify against the defendant, Klay.
The Pentagon asserted that the 1% increase in the number of reports indicates that the problem is getting better. According to their spin this is: "A clear sign that victims... have more confidence in the reporting system for sex crimes...," reports CNN.
This assertion does not comport with the report's data. Though the number of reports of assault -- both unrestricted and restricted -- did increase one percent from the previous year, nothing in the report indicates that a greater percentage of victims are coming forward. There is no data yet on whether attacks increased or decreased in 2011. Therefore the fact that a few more attacks were officially reported provides no reliable information about whether a higher percentage of victims are reporting being attacked or not. Given that number of reports almost stayed the same, there is nothing to indicate that people trust the system more. The real story in this report is what the commanders and the military system did with the reports. To put it simply, they did a lot less in 2011 than they did in 2010.
While restricted reports of rape or sexual assault are down since 2009, they are up from last year. The sole purpose of a restricted report is to get medical and psychological care. No investigation is initiated and no perpetrator is named. If victims had confidence in the system for dealing with sexual assaults, restricted reports would have decreased, NOT increased.
Without fundamental reform this problem will only get worse. Perpetrators know they stand little chance their crime will even be reported. And, in the unlikely event it is reported, there is very little chance they will suffer any meaningful consequence. America's troops deserve better than spin and half-hearted actions that fail to address the core problems. They deserve real action. That means no longer hiding behind manipulated statistics and, once and for all, fundamentally reforming the way the military handles sexual assault and rape.
The complete 2011 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military can be found at http://www.protectourdefenders.com/the-facts -- just click on the DOD logo.