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The U.S. Defense Department on Tuesday embraced a major reform aimed at stamping out sexual assault in the military. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III issued a statement saying he supported removing commanders from having any voice on whether service personnel should be prosecuted if accused of sexual assault. Nick Schifrin has more.
The Pentagon is embracing a major reform aimed at stamping out sexual assault in the military.
Tonight, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is issuing a statement endorsing a change recommended by victim advocates that would reduce commanders' influence over the decision to prosecute service members who are accused of sexual assault.
Nick Schifrin has more.
The Pentagon estimates there could be as many as 20,000 sexual assaults in the military every year. Right now, military commanders decide whether service members under their command should be prosecuted.
An independent commission recommended removing the chain of command from that decision-making process. But, until tonight, the Defense Department has resisted that.
For more on Secretary Austin's endorsement of that recommendation, we turn to retired Colonel Don Christensen, who had a 23-year career as an Air Force lawyer and is now president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group.
Don Christensen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
How significant is this announcement?
Col. Don Christensen (Ret.), Protect Our Defenders: Well, this is huge.
This is the first time in the history of the American military that they have recognized that they're failing at addressing sexual assault, that it's a command issue, and that we need to take prosecution authority away from commanders.
As you well know, this has been resisted by members of the military at the most senior levels for many years.
And I have heard the same from military members as well. What changed? And why was that resistance overcome?
Col. Don Christensen:
Well, what's changed is, there's been a decade or more of failure.
For the last 10 years, at least, the military has promised the commanders would address this issue, that they alone are the solution. But the numbers have not gotten better. They have got worse. Sexual assault remains stubbornly above 20,000 every year. The number of prosecutions and convictions have plummeted.
And then I think the death and the murder of Vanessa Guillen really highlighted the problems that men and women are facing in the military when it comes to getting justice.
This recommendation applies for questions or prosecution of sexual assault, harassment, as well as domestic abuse.
There is congressional legislation that calls for the removal of the chain of command for all felonies. Is that distinction important?
Well, it's important, in the sense that we recommend — we have to remember the IRC did not look at anything beyond those issues.
So, we should take…
The independent commission, the IRC.
Right. The independent commission did not look at other issues, such as murder and armed robbery.
But I think it's not in it's not inconsistent with what Senator Gillibrand and Representative Speier have been pushing in both houses, to have all felony level cases taken outside the chain of command.
And the statement from Secretary Austin tonight says that they will work with Congress to reform the rules.
As you mentioned before, the number of prosecutions is a fraction of the number of cases, or believed cases. Is this likely to increase the number of prosecutions?
Well, I believe it will.
Prosecuting and understand how to prosecute sexual assault is a complex area. It takes somebody years as a prosecutor to understand the best way to evaluate evidence, the best cases to bring forward.
The current system of having commanders decide, being advised by generalists, JAGs simply is not getting the right cases to trial. I think this will be a cultural shift. And it'll be a legal shift that results in more people going to trial and more convictions.
And that cultural shift, that legal shift, I'm wondering if you could respond to what many commanders argue in the past, which is that they and only they are the best people to judge what is happening in their units.
Well, you have to understand that the vast majority commanders do not have prosecution authority anyway.
The ability to send a felony level case is vested in just a small fraction of commanders. There are 14,500 commanders. Only about 140 actually send cases to felony level courts.
The other thing you have to remember is that the senior JAGs that are going to be making these decisions or career military officers who have served in units, who understand what a unit is facing. They're officers just as much as a commander is.
Don Christensen tonight on a major announcement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Don Christensen, thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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