PITTSFIELD

Nobody would accuse me of being an expert on military law. Nor can I be seen as unfriendly to the soldiers and sailors who have sworn to defend our nation to the death. But the $20,000 reduction in pay for Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair after he was found guilty of mistreating an Army captain he was accused of sexually assaulting, was just a slap on his wrist. All too often in such cases there is minimal punishment -- or none at all.

There is an epidemic of sexual assault cases in the military. According to the Web site Press TV, the Pentagon estimates at least 26,000 members of the military were assaulted in 2012. There have been suggestions that 2013 saw an increase in such incidents. The Army’s top prosecutor overseeing sexual assault cases was suspended last month over allegations of assaulting a female subordinate. The incident allegedly took place in 2011 in a hotel room at a sexual assault conference.

USA Today reports that the Army has disqualified 588 soldiers as sexual assault counselors, recruiters, and drill sergeants for infractions ranging from sexual assault to child abuse to drunken driving. The number of soldiers disqualified from these "positions of trust" is 10 times higher than the number the Army reported last summer after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered that troops in sensitive positions be screened for previous criminal or unethical behavior. After an initial investigation the Army suspended 55 soldiers last summer. Then investigators combed through records of 20,000 others and disqualified 588 soldiers in total. Hagel called for that review in May after a Pentagon study found that incidents of unwanted sexual contact had risen 35 per cent from 2010 to 2012.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, noted in a CNN commentary that the Pentagon estimated 26,000 sexual assaults yearly, but reporting is low, courts-martial are rare, and the conviction rate is less than 1 per cent. The vast majority of sexual assault and rape cases in the military show that if a report is made the victim fears retaliation and the loss of his or her job, she said.

Leaving sexual assault and rape cases in the hands of commanders to prosecute creates a fundamental conflict of interest that undermines service members’ due process rights. Until the decision to prosecute is taken away from commanding officers, we simply cannot believe or trust the military justice system. "For more than three years now I have taken to the House floor and told the stories of the men and women in our armed forces who have been sexually assaulted," Speier wrote. "Many of these stories involved commanders who undermined investigations, refused to bring a case to court-martial, or overturned a case after a jury had found the perpetrator guilty and a jail sentence was issued."

Of the 1,000 reports of sexual assault, almost two-thirds found guilty served no jail time, and 30 who were found guilty of sexual assault got a letter of reprimand. That was it.

What is clear is that commanders are part of the problem, not the solution. Commanders often decided to not move forward with courts-martial, but when they did, even with DNA evidence and tape-recorded confessions of rape, the predators were typically given mild punishments after pleading to lesser charges. Commanders also decreased many punishments on their own, and in two cases threw out guilty verdicts and punishments completely.

A woman in uniform is much likelier to be targeted than a man, Pentagon surveys indicate, but because male service members greatly outnumber females, officials believe the majority of sexual assault victims -- 53 percent in 2012 -- are men. Only 13 percent of reports last year were filed by men, military data show. The Department of Defense’s annual report on Sexual Assault in the Military estimated that in 2012 some 13,900 men and 12,100 women "experienced unwanted sexual contact. Of these 380 men reported the assault to a military authority and 2,555 women did so. Only 247 men agreed to further investigation, but 1,729 women did so."

Rep. Speier has introduced the STOP Act (The Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act) which "will take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and put them into the hands of civilian and military legal experts." New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, calling for any crime punishable by a year or more in military confinement be handled by independent, trained, professional military prosecutors. This would take the decision to prosecute sexual abuse cases out of the military’s chain of command.

These two related proposals are important attempts in the battle to stop and punish sexual assault in our military. But are they enough? I say no. So far the military and Congress have not shown enough signs that they will make a difference. And where does that leave us?

Because the military is not able to handle sexual assault cases appropriately, I suggest that we turn over all sexual assault cases to special civilian courts and prosecutors who will have the power to investigate thoroughly, confidentially if necessary, and to call for any available documents. These investigator/prosecutors must be vetted thoroughly so that victims can be sure their cases will be followed up appropriately, with no chance they will be ignored or that there will be any recriminations against the accuser.

Some will say that we must leave military justice in the hands of the military. I ask, why? Let’s change the laws that prevent true justice for those who have suffered military rape and sexual assault.

Peter Albertson is an occasional Eagle contributor.