Friday, November 20, 2015

Transparency watch

U.S. Disciplinary Barracks
Fort Leavenworth, KS
The Council Bluffs (Iowa) Daily Nonpareil has this editorial on the recent Associated Press investigative report on transparency and the prosecution of child sexual offenders in the armed forces. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, sponsor of military justice reform legislation that has not yet gained the needed 60 votes, has taken notice:
An analysis of currently available data obtained by the Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act found that of the 1,233 inmates confined in the military’s prison network, 61 percent were convicted of sex crimes. 
In just over half of those cases, the victims were children.

Since the beginning of this year, children were the victims in 133 out of 301 sex crime convictions against service members – including charges ranging from rape to distributing child pornography.

While the numbers are shocking, even more shocking is the manner in which our military branches adjudicate the crimes and report the results of those crimes.

The military justice system operates independently of state and federal criminal courts. The U.S. Constitution mandates a presumption of openness in civilian courts – trials are open to the public, as are court filings, including motions and transcripts, with exceptions for documents that have been sealed.

Anyone can walk into any county or U.S. courthouse and ask to read a case file without providing a reason beyond curiosity. That openness is designed to provide accountability.

On the other hand, visibility in connection with military trials is minimal.

While brief trial results are now made public, court records and other documents are released only through Freedom of Information Act requests, requests that often require appeals and fees and, not uncommonly, months of waiting.

While military trials are technically “open,” as are civilian trials, they take place on military bases, which are closed to the general public.

Over the past five months, the AP has filed 17 separate requests under the Freedom of Information Act for documents from more than 200 military sexual assault cases that ended with convictions. The military services had provided complete trial records for five cases – less than a third of those sought – and partial records for more than 70 others.

The case of a Marine warrant officer offers insight into the military’s handling of sex crimes, including those in which the victims were children.

The Marine Corps summary of the court martial read, “At a General Court-Martial at Okinawa, Japan, (the accused) was convicted by a military judge alone of conspiracy to commit sexual assault and rape of children, aggravated sexual abuse of a child, sexual abuse of a child and possession of child pornography. The military judge sentenced the accused to 144 years of confinement, a reprimand and dismissal.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the AP learned the most significant detail missing from the Marine Corps’ brief public summary was any mention of a pretrial agreement limiting the Marine’s prison time to 20 years, not 144 as the service initially said. He pleaded guilty to 18 counts, including conspiracy to commit rape of a child.

He’ll do even less time if he is eventually paroled. In the military justice system, he could be released from prison after serving one-third of his 20-year term.

The investigation found that since the beginning of July, 31 soldiers, sailors and Marines were convicted of sex crimes against children. In 20 cases, there were pretrial agreements.

A leading critic of the Pentagon’s treatment of sexual assault, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called the AP’s findings about the number of child victims alarming and disturbing.

“There are just huge red flags and huge concerns about where justice is not being done,” Gillibrand said.

The lack of transparency in the military justice system serves only to hide the system’s shortcomings.
It certainly is noteworthy that over 60% of military correctional facility inmates are confined for sex offenses of one kind or another. 

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