Responding to growing public criticism of American military leaders' treatment of sexual assault cases, Congress re-wrote key parts of the Uniform Code of Military Justice ("UCMJ"). Motivating many of Congress' reforms was a belief that "commanders are predisposed to believe the offenders, who are often good soldiers, and to disbelieve the victims, who may have behaved in ways that commanders dislike." If so, such a bias would imply "high levels of attrition as the commanders undervalue the [sexual assault] cases and divert them away from the legal process."
Eric Carpenter (FIU), whose prior service includes stints as an Army helicopter pilot and in the JAG Corps, sets out to test underlying assumptions behind the UCMJ reforms in a recent paper, An Empirical Look at Commander Bias in Sexual Assault Cases. Key findings are described in the excerpted abstract.
"This study ... measures the attrition of sexual assault cases in the precise phase of the case processing that the commanders control – the decision to take action in the case. Using data that I received from the Army through the Freedom of Information Act, this study measures how commanders disposed of every founded sexual assault and sexual contact offense in the Army from 2008-2011. Further, this study tests the counterfactual – how commanders treated other similar cases: homicides, robberies, and assaults.
This study finds that commanders treat non-penetrative sexual assaults the same or more seriously than they treat simple assaults. Further, when commanders decide to take action on penetrative sexual assault cases, commanders send more of those cases to trial than they do with comparable crimes. However, commanders decide to take no action in penetrative sexual assault cases more frequently than they do with other comparable crimes. This study includes a secondary finding that commanders treat domestic violence cases more seriously than they treat other similar assault cases.
The results of this study should inform the national debate on whether Congress should remove commanders from the process. These results suggest that step may not be necessary, and research and reform efforts should focus on how military law enforcement handles these cases."