Army sets up independent prosecutor’s office and misconduct amnesty policy
Last week, the military unveiled two new steps in its effort to revamp how it responds to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the ranks, bringing the service closer to meeting congressionally mandated reform goals.
As required by the annual defense bill for 2022, the military has formally established an independent prosecutor’s office, reporting to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, according to a general order made public Thursday.
The military also announced that it had implemented a “safety to report” policy, which protects victims of sexual assault from disciplinary action for minor misconduct – such as underage drinking – that could appear as part of an investigation into the attack. Congress has mandated the services to enact such policies in the fiscal year 2021 defense bill.
One of the military’s top civilian officials overseeing reforms to its troubled sexual assault/harassment response and prevention program, known as SHARP, has indicated that more changes will come.
“We continue to look for ways to improve the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Program,” said Dr. James A. Helis, who directs the resilience branch of the army. “This directive helps reduce the stigma associated with reporting, so that offenders can be held accountable for their actions and victims can get the support they need to heal.
The mandatory reforms come two months after a government watchdog called SHARP’s policy “disjointed”. [and] unclear.” Long-promised centralized guidance documents were still missing nearly two years after reports from the Fort Hood Independent Review Board and the Department of Defense Independent Review Board into sexual assaults in the ‘army.
While the Army has already made several changes to SHARP, including piloting centralized resource centers at six facilities, the Government Accountability Office has pushed the service to accelerate the pace of reforms.
What changes and when
By September next year, the new Office of Trial Special Advocates will handle prosecutorial decisions and trial work for several major crimes, removing those decisions from full-force commanders.
According to an Army statement, the following types of crimes will be prosecuted by the new office:
- sexual assault
- Sex crimes involving children, including child pornography
- Unlawful dissemination of intimate images
- Other sexual misconduct
- Domestic violence
- Hunt down
The new office will be headed by a general officer from the service’s uniformed barristers corps, who will report directly to Wormuth.
The reportable security policy, which Wormuth established via an Army directive, is already in effect.
The new policy prohibits commanders from punishing sexual assault victims for minor misconduct they may have committed when they were assaulted.
Studies have shown that victims who are afraid of being punished — even for minor offenses like underage drinking, fraternizing or curfew violations — are less likely to report their assault, according to a army statement.
When deciding whether a misconduct is “minor” and therefore condoned by policy, commanders must consider extenuating circumstances, such as the rank and experience level of the victim or whether there is a pattern of behavior, depending on the directive. Commanders must also consider aggravating circumstances, such as impact on a military mission or harm to others (excluding self-defense), the directive added.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the military, specializing in accountability reports, personnel issues, and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master’s thesis on the influence of the Cold War-era Department of Defense. on Hollywood films of World War II.