The U.S. military's effort to prosecute, punish and curtail sexual assaults has failed miserably, despite a chest-thumping zero-tolerance policy and repeated assurances it would get the job done. A dramatically different approach is clearly necessary.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has championed a strong proposal to improve the unacceptable state of affairs by moving authority for prosecuting and punishing sex crimes outside the military chain of command. But it was killed yesterday by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He sided with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and military brass who insist that disrupting the command structure isn't necessary to effectively address the problem. But a Defense Department survey that found 26,000 sexual assaults in the ranks in 2012, an increase of 6 percent from a year earlier, demolishes that argument.
Gillibrand's fix would give military prosecutors the authority to decide which sexual misconduct cases go to trial. And it would end commanders' power to reverse convictions and sentences. That would ensure victims could trust they would no longer face retaliation or career-crippling marginalization for reporting assaults, and that their attackers would be prosecuted and punished. In announcing her intent to take the fight for these reforms to the Senate floor, Gillibrand is showing that the voices of the growing number of women in the chamber cannot be dismissed.
Levin's alternative is just not good enough. It would require a review by someone higher in the chain of command when a commander decides not to prosecute a sexual assault. And it would make retaliating against a victim a crime. He insists cutting commanders out of the legal process would weaken the response to sexual assault and undermine their ability to enforce good order and discipline.
Unfortunately, there has long been a scandalous shortage of good order and discipline when it comes to sexual assault.