Following a startling AP report on the prevalence of child sex abuse in the military, experts and officials are reiterating the importance of establishing a new reporting system signed into law earlier this year. The system, which is expected to be operational by mid-2016, is aimed at closing disturbing loopholes in sex offender registration for convicted service members returning to civilian life.
As Starts and Stripes reports, the new law requires that the Department of Defense to report military sex offenders to a federal sex offender database maintained by the Department of Justice. Last week, the DOD revealed that they were already working on the new system and expect it to be working as soon as summer 2016. The update comes on the heels of a new report from the Associated Press that revealed that nearly a quarter of military prisoners were convicted of child sex offenses.
"ALARMING FINDINGS" FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
In a report released earlier last week, the AP revealed that an investigation found that more inmates in U.S. military prisons have been convicted for child sex abuse charges more so than any other crime. 61% of all inmates were said to be incarcerated for sex crimes—and roughly half of those inmates were convicted of child sex crimes.
Perhaps more concerning was the fact that little about these cases can be accessed by the public. Unlike civilian criminal trials, courts-martial take place on military bases, where the public and the press are rarely permitted. AP reporters found that to gain access to information on these cases, they needed to file Freedom of Information Act requests—and even had to appeal rejections in some cases.
"I can sit at my computer in New Haven and find out what was filed five minutes ago in a case in federal district court in Seattle," said Eugene Fidell, a military justice professor at Yale Law School, speaking on the opaque nature of military justice. "But to get copies of motions filed last week in a general court-martial at Fort Lewis would take months if not years, while the Freedom of Information Act wheels ground along."
Even when information was obtained, there were worrisome omissions. Take the case of Chief Warrant Officer 4 D. E. DeSmit, who was found guilty on numerous child sex abuse cases and sentenced to 144 years of prison. Recovered documents, however, revealed that DeSmit had struck some kind of pretrial deal and was only sentenced to 20 years—a sentence he could serve a fraction of if paroled.
"This disturbing report exposes, once again, that our military's justice system has glaring and unacceptable failures," said Representative Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. In response to why there was such a high concentration of child sex offenders in military prisons, Pentagon officials explained that these types of cases are aggressively pursued by military prosecutors and harsher sentences tend to be handed down.
A NEED FOR BETTER REPORTING
In light of the AP report, lawmakers and advocates are again championing the need for better practices in military sex offender reporting. "It is absolutely important that—particularly those who are predators of children—their names be available as other sex offenders are," Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado said. "They should not be shielded because they were in the military."
The DOD is already required to provide the names of military sex offenders to state jurisdictions when a convicted service member is released and returns back to civilian life. However, this doesn't always happen-- especially if the convicted service member ends up moving. This means that an untold number of sex offenders end up residing in civilian communities without the same documentation and restrictions that are used for offenders convicted in state courts.
Scripps news service investigated this same phenomena last year and found that, out of a 1,300 reviewed military convictions, 242 "rapists and abusers of children" were able to avoid sex offender registration due to lack of effective communication between the military and local civilian agencies. There is a large concern among lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and community activists that the lack of this kind of offender tracking will lead to more victims—particularly children. "The rate of recidivism is very high," Coffman added. "It is almost a guaranteed that it is going to occur again."
The new law, signed in May, will require that names of military sex offenders be sent to the U.S. attorney general. From there, the name will be added to both the National Sex Offender Registry and the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.
For many, the new reporting system can't come fast enough and will be effective in helping to monitor those convicted and prevent further offenses. "Governmental officials must be more open about sexual violence in the military," David Clohessy of the Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests told Stars and Stripes. "It's just that simple. Otherwise, the safety of children and adults will be jeopardized. And public support for the armed services will be hurt."
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