VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – A critical gap between civilian and military law means that hundreds of military sex offenders are out there – and we can’t track them.
All civilian sex offenders have to put their names in a registry before they get out of prison, but 10 On Your Side discovered it’s not so clean-cut for sex offenders in the military. Former Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey Bryant wants to see that change.
“What happens if an employer, the neighbors, the community has no way of knowing?” Bryant asks hypothetically. “Hey, he’s come to volunteer at the elementary school today.”
Legislation passed in 2006, better known as the Adam Walsh Act, requires civilian sex offenders to register on a national database before being released from prison. Military offenders have three business days after release, and the Department of Defense is supposed to notify local authorities.
Scripps News examined the cases of more than 1300 military sex offenders whose convictions were upheld on appeal. Nearly 250 had slipped through the cracks after release. They never registered on the sex offender database. “Roaming around in civilian society with no notification to anyone in the community, that they in fact may be living right next door,” said Rep. Jackie Speier of northern California.
Speier is a four-term democrat, and is on the House Armed Services Committee. She is sponsoring legislation that would make registration of military sex offenders mandatory prior to release from prison.
The Defense Department says it fully complies with the Adam Walsh Law, officially the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Part of the problem is that SORNA does not give the military jurisdiction to require registration prior to prison release.
While Speier and Bryant want to tighten up registration, they also want to change another critical step in the process of military justice – who gets to decide which sexual assault cases go to court-martial?
The chain of command has always had a role as the “convening authority”, the ones to determine whether or not to call for a court-martial.
Bryant was part of a blue-ribbon panel that studied whether commanders should be involved in deciding which cases to prosecute. The Response Systems panel is composed of five civilians and four military. In its report to Congress last year, a seven-member majority determined that chain of command is the appropriate authority to decide.
Retired Admiral James Houck was among the majority. Houck is a former Judge Advocate General and is now the dean of the law school at Penn State. “I realize it’s different from the model that we’re accustomed to in civilian jurisdictions, but the military is different,” Houck told 10 On Your Side. “I think the commanders are completely equipped (to decide when to convene a court-martial). They have legal advice that’s well-qualified.”
Bryant was one of the two dissenters. He says the military panel members were too close to the culture to see the need for change. “It was just difficult for (Houck) and some of the others to see that the system in which they had spent years was somehow flawed.”
Attorneys in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps are experts in military law. Bryant and Speier want to see JAG prosecutors have more influence on what cases to prosecute, similar to the role prosecutors play in the civilian system.
Houck says that’s been tried, but didn’t produce any meaningful impact. “There was no significant evidence that in jurisdictions where commanders had been removed from the process that it made any difference whatsoever.”
Several Defense Department officials told 10 On Your Side of key reforms and initiatives to respond to demands for reform. Among them:
- Removing the statute of limitations on many sex crimes;
- free legal counsel for victims throughout the process;
- less focus on minor victim infractions such as marijuana use and underage drinking;
- and strengthening the partnership with US Marshals to track down unregistered military offenders.
Congressman Scott Rigell of Virginia Beach just completed two terms on the House Armed Services Committee. He supports the chain of command system when it comes to courts-martial. Rigell says the military has come a long way in a short time when it comes to handling sexual assaults. “It is not the same law that we had two and three years ago.”
But that progress doesn’t satisfy Speier and Bryant. They still want to remove chain of command and make registration mandatory prior to release.
Although Congress makes the laws, Speier says the Pentagon has a strong influence. “Now in the end, none of this is going to happen unless the military wants it to happen. Let’s be very clear about this.”
If passed, Speier’s legislation would take effect in 2016. In the meantime, she wants victims of sexual assault in the military to let her office know about it. Speier has made dozens of speeches to her colleagues recounting the terror and abuse they experienced. Click here to contact Rep. Speier.
“What’s interesting is that once (the victims) hear their stories being told on the House floor, it allows them to recognize that this was a crime,” Speier says. “They have nothing to be ashamed of, and they can become a force for good in terms of changing the system.”