Beginning today, the decision to prosecute sexual assault and several other serious crimes has moved from an accused service member’s chain of command to new Offices of Special Trial Counsel, which have general or flag officer leaders who report directly to the secretaries of the military departments.
This military justice reform is an important step in restoring faith that the system is fair, just and equitable, said senior Defense Department and military officials, who emphasized that the offices will be staffed by specially trained, independent military attorneys uniquely qualified to address complex cases. The OSTCs will handle cases professionally, applying the best practices and procedures of civilian prosecution offices, a senior DOD official said.
The covered offenses that fall under the authority of the new OSTCs include: murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, domestic violence, stalking, child pornography and most sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
Sexual harassment will become a covered offense on Jan. 1, 2025, for crimes committed after that date where a formal complaint is made and substantiated.
In the case of sexual assault, the reform applies to unrestricted reports. A service member making an unrestricted report has decided to participate in a criminal investigation and support actions taken to hold the alleged offender appropriately accountable. Individualized, confidential help is available to understand these changes from special victims’ counsel in the Army; victims’ counsel in the Department of the Air Force; and victims’ legal counsel in the Navy and Marine Corps. Sexual assault response coordinators can assist in contacting the attorneys and other assistance services.
Service members filing a restricted report of sexual assault may continue to report allegations confidentially without triggering an investigation, while still connecting with medical, legal and advocacy services and submitting information to the CATCH a Serial Offender Program, if they choose.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has placed an unprecedented priority on countering the scourge of sexual assault in the military. This led him to stand up the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military early in his tenure. The reforms grew out of the commission’s recommendations. After considering the commission’s recommendations, DOD proposed historic military justice reforms, leading to congressional passage and presidential approval of the new system that takes effect today.
Improving accountability through military justice reform is just one of several, crucial lines of effort that DOD is undertaking.
“We are also taking major steps in the areas of prevention, climate, culture and victim care,” a senior DOD official said.
“It is only with this comprehensive approach that we can prevent these crimes and work to restore the trust and confidence of our service members,” said the DOD official.