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Military commanders no longer make sexual assault prosecution decisions

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks before a Senate Appropriations hearing on the President's proposed budget request for fiscal year 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 16, 2023.
Andrew Harnik
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks before a Senate Appropriations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 16, 2023.

Decisions on whether to charge service members with several felonies, including sexual assault, are no longer up to unit commanders — independent offices of special counsel for each branch of the military are up and running, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The change was mandated by law in 2021 after veterans and victim advocates testified that commanders failed to act on sexual assault reports too often.

The special counsel offices are staffed with specially trained military prosecutors, as well as military and civilian support staff.


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that the change should instill confidence in service members that their crime reports will be considered fairly.

"This reform aims to help strengthen accountability and increase all of our service members’ trust in the fairness and integrity of the military justice system," Austin said in a statement.

One of two Navy Special Trial Counsel regions is headquartered in San Diego. Ten total Navy bases will have special counsel offices, Pentagon officials told reporters during a Dec. 21 briefing.

Don King, a retired Navy judge now in private practice in San Diego, said he supported the change because military commanders lack legal expertise.

"They're not trained lawyers," King said in an interview Friday. "They don't have any accountability for the decisions they make in the legal world."


King spent three decades in the Navy and retired as a captain. He said he advised several commanders throughout that time and he'd never seen one protect an accused service member.

"I never (saw) a commander (make) a decision to protect somebody who had been accused and likely committed one of these terrible crimes," King said.

Pentagon data show that reports of sexual assault are up year over year since 2010. The number of cases brought to court-martial are down during the same time.

King said the cases that do go to trial had low conviction rates — something he said would likely improve under the new system.

"If I were betting man, I would bet on it that you're going to find the prosecutions are going to drop — not just a little bit but significantly — and convictions are going to go up," King said.

A senior defense official told reporters that the Pentagon is also hiring more than 2,000 specialists who will take a public health approach to preventing harmful behaviors — including sexual assault — among the troops.