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My Turn: Facts support Ayotte’s approach to combat sexual assaults in military

A recent column in the Monitor was heavy on criticism but light on facts regarding bipartisan legislation coauthored by U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte to combat the scourge of sexual assault in our military (“On sexual assault, Ayotte’s measure ineffective,” Jeanne Cusson, Forum, March 26). Ayotte is a former prosecutor and attorney general who has worked closely with victims of sexual assault. Throughout this debate, her approach has been based on the facts and guided by the need to hold military commanders more accountable, not less, for what happens in their units. 

The Victims Protection Act, which Ayotte introduced with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, makes significant changes to the way the military handles sexual assault cases, with the goal of better protecting victims and increasing reporting and prosecutions of sexual assaults.

Under her bill, should a unit commander not agree with legal counsel’s recommendation to prosecute an alleged sexual assault case, that case would be immediately appealed to the civilian secretary overseeing that service branch. Should both the legal counsel and unit commander agree that a case should not be pursued, that commander’s commanding officer or a general court martial would have to review the case as a final check against bias. 

In addition, legislation signed into law last year included a bipartisan provision introduced by Ayotte that will provide victims of sexual assault in all military service branches with a trained military lawyer – a special victims’ counsel – to serve as their guide throughout the legal process. That bill – the National Defense Authorization Act – contained more than 30 additional substantive changes to improve how sexual assault victims are treated and how perpetrators are prosecuted. 

Moving prosecutions outside the chain of command, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal would do, may sound like a good talking point – but there is no evidence to support that doing so would result in more reporting or more prosecutions of sexual assault cases. In fact, evidence has shown that commanders are often more likely to prosecute sexual assault cases than civilians – a fact that writer Jeanne Cusson ignored. During the past two years, military commanders have used their authority to prosecute 93 cases of sexual assault after civilian prosecutors declined to pursue charges. 

Cusson also failed to mention findings released in January by an independent panel of experts that recommended against stripping military commanders of their ability to launch courts-martial. The panel, which was comprised of mostly civilian women – including the author of the federal rape shield law – overwhelmingly rejected Gillibrand’s proposal, citing a lack of evidence that removing senior commanders from the process would reduce sexual assaults or increase reporting of these crimes.

The panel also cited experiences from U.S. allies that, despite having shifted sexual assault cases outside the chain of command, did not see an increase in reports of assaults in their military systems. 

As retired Air Force chief master sergeant Barbara Taylor said of the Gillibrand proposal, “It would be devastating to the United States military. . . . A commander cannot be held responsible if he does not have the authority to act.”

Instead of stripping away a military commander’s responsibility, Ayotte’s Victims Protection Act establishes tough checks to ensure that commanders are held accountable for what happens in their units.

This debate is about finding the best approach to protect victims, increase prosecutions of perpetrators, and ultimately help stop sexual assaults in our military. The evidence overwhelmingly favors the bipartisan approach Ayotte introduced. Granite Staters should be proud that our senator is using her background as a prosecutor to lead the fight to address this serious problem in our military. 

(State Sen. Sharon Carson is Republican from Londonderry. She previously served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve and retired as a sergeant first class.)

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