Senate Committee Investigates Sexual Assaults In U.S. Military

Congress holds another hearing Tuesday on ways to reduce sexual assault in the military. Despite agreement that sexual assault is a problem, the military is struggling to find the most effective way of dealing with the problem. Congress wants to see more offenders go to jail or at least get kicked out of the service. But in fact there's little evidence that strategy will actually reduce the number of assaults.

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Within the U.S. military now, it seems hardly a day goes by without some new accusation of sexual assault. The problem has the attention of top officers, even the Secretary of Defense. Still, lawmakers say the Pentagon is not doing enough to stem a growing number of sex crimes. A Senate committee is holding a hearing today on what Congress can do about sexual assault in the military.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Lawmakers want to see more people go to jail for military sexual assault, and they want to see the number of attacks go down. But achieving both goals at the same time is difficult. Take prosecutions. Sending offenders to jail might bring justice to victims of assaults in the past, but there's no evidence that approach will affect the number of future assaults. Daniel Carter studies campus safety for the VTV Family Outreach Foundation.

DANIEL CARTER: Don't anticipate that the threat of prosecution alone will be a sufficient deterrent for true predators.

ABRAMSON: Carter says true predators who commit most offenses are not deterred by the likelihood of getting caught. Another strategy backed by a number of members of Congress would make sure that attackers are at least drummed out of the military. But, in fact, the Navy has already been following this policy for the last three years. Lieutenant Commander Nell Evans is with the Navy's office of the Judge Advocate General.

LIEUTENANT COMMANDER NELL EVANS: If evidence shows that an individual has committed an offense and they do not go to a court martial, it is mandatory that they be processed for administrative separation.

ABRAMSON: So separation, being booted out, is already a mandatory minimum sentence for the Navy, yet the Navy has no evidence that this strategy has reduced the number of sexual assaults. So extending that policy to the other services might not change the statistics that have generated so much concern in Congress.

In the search for ways to deter assaults, the military has turned to another institution with lots of young people and a sexual assault problem: higher education. Sharyn Potter of the University of New Hampshire says college can be a dangerous place for young women.

SHARYN POTTER: During a woman's years in college, she has a one-in-four chance of being a victim of a completed or attempted sexual assault.

ABRAMSON: Colleges are trying a number of approaches to this problem. One that seems to work, Potter says, is bystander education. It's hard to deter predators, but apparently you can educate bystanders on how to get involved. If you see someone drinking too much and putting themselves at risk, you can step in and take them home.

Potter says there is strong evidence that this kind of education does change behavior.

POTTER: And we found that people who were exposed to the program increased their reports of intervention, compared to people who were not exposed to the program.

ABRAMSON: The military knows this, and has actually been doing lots of bystander education. Trouble is, the number of reported assaults keeps going up. There is enormous pressure on the Pentagon to try something new. That's put the military on the defensive against the most aggressive legislative proposals, such as the idea that prosecutors, not commanders, should decide which cases go forward.

That's an idea likely to come up at today's hearing. Expect the military to say you can't make commanders responsible for eliminating sexual assault, and then undercut their authority at the same time. Retired general Robert Shadley was commander at the Aberdeen Proving Ground during a sexual assault scandal there in the 1990s.

GENERAL ROBERT SHADLEY: The same person in a military organization who's worried about protecting soldiers from improvised explosive devices ought to be the same ones who are concerned about preventing sexual assaults on both men and women in their formations.

ABRAMSON: But that argument is losing ground as the statistics show it's not working. Congress appears very likely to approve some measure that will reign in the independence of commanders. All this pressure has raised fears among defense attorneys that their clients could become scapegoats. Defense attorneys fear a witch hunt, as Congress demands results. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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