NON-JUDICIAL PUNISHMENT (NJP) IN THE AIR FORCE
Part V of the Manual for Courts Martial outlines the non- judicial punishment (NJP) that can be imposed on air force staff when they are found to have committed minor offenses. Also known as Article 15 proceedings, the objective behind this kind of punishment is to deter the staff member and others from committing similar offenses and to reprimand him/ her for the act. The superior officer imposing the punishment takes into account the fact that court martial will damage the accused staff member's record and this may pose problems for his/ her career advancement in future. In general, non- judicial punishments rely heavily on the discretion and judgment of the superior officer who is invested with the powers to impose such punishment.
A TOLL TO ENFORCE PROGRESSIVE DISCIPLINE
Specifics about this kind of disciplinary punishment that can imposed on air force staff are detailed in AFI 51-202, non- judicial punishment. Article 15 provides commanders with the means to ensure that orderliness and discipline are maintained under their command at all times. When an airman commits a minor offense, the commander is advised to impose the lowest form of disciplinary action that is available to him. Stronger measures are to be taken only if the airman repeats the mistake or his misbehavior continues unabated.
Article 15 measures are a higher form of disciplinary action than mere verbal or written reprimands but they are not equivalent to court martial proceedings. In effect, they provide an easy and effective way to impose progressive discipline. It is important to remember that commanders have full discretion to impose Article 15 punishments or initiate court martial proceedings if the situation demands it. These decisions are taken on a case to case basis taking into account many factors including the designation, age, current status of the accused air force member, the offense committed and the circumstances under which it was committed.
THE PROCESS OF IMPOSING NON-JUDICIAL PUNISHMENT
Non- judicial punishments or NJP can be imposed by the commander if he believes that the accused has actually committed the offense and that a mere reprimand will not suffice in the situation. However, there are certain procedures to be followed here to ensure that the rights of the accused are fully safe guarded. A formal intimation has to be given to the accused air force staff member that proceedings are being initiated to consider imposition of NJP. The air force man has a three day period within which he can respond to the commanding officer verbally or in writing but this period can be extended with the permission of the commanding officer.
The air force man on whom the Article 15 proceedings are being initiated has the choice of accepting or turning down the punishment. Rejecting the NJP does not result in the withdrawal of the charges and the accused person can also choose to address it via a court martial proceeding instead. On the contrary, the commanding officer also has the option of issuing a reprimand, escalating the matter to a court martial or, depending on the case, deciding to take no further action at all.
If the Article 15 is accepted, the evidence that is being used to 'prove' that the offense was committed by the air force man is presented to him. In addition, the accused personnel can bring a spokesperson with him when the article 15 proceedings are being carried out. At this time he has the right to interview any witnesses being called and also present other facts or his own witnesses to prove his innocence. It is important to note that accepting Article 15 proceedings is not an admission of guilt in any way.
WHAT KIND OF PUNISHMENT CAN BE IMPOSED UNDER NJP?
Under Article 15 different kinds of NJP can be imposed depending on the discretion of the commanding officer. As mentioned earlier, the commander is required to impose the minimum punishment that will serve the purpose of maintaining discipline in the air force. The rank of the person who had made the accusation and the rank of the person charged, both play key roles in determining the degree of punishment imposed.
Typically, the punishments imposed range from extra duty, reprimands, pay cuts, rank reduction, confinement to quarters, reduced rations or confinement to specific limits. It is impossible to state exactly what punishment will be given in each case since the commander's judgment factors in significantly in this aspect.
There is a provision under UCMJ to appeal the decision of the commander and the air force man has a period of five days within which he can appeal to higher authorities. If he believes that the punishment is unjust, disproportionate or that the commander has not taken all the factors into consideration before making the final decision, this should be mentioned in the appeal. If the appeal appears valid to the higher officials the punishment may be rescinded.