The nation's top military leaders told senators today that commanders should retain responsibility for prosecuting service members accused of sexual assault.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that taking that authority away could harm good order and discipline.
Dempsey and Winnefeld are under Senate consideration for second two-year terms in their posts.
Keeping commanders in the process ensures there is an active deterrent to the crime, Winnefeld said. "Somebody who is contemplating a sexual assault knows that they're going to be caught, that they're going to be prosecuted, and if they're prosecuted, they're going to be punished," he said. "It's our strong view that the commander is responsible for that."
Dempsey told the senators that Army officials have looked at the numbers on sexual assault prosecutions over the past two years and found 35 cases in which civilian district attorneys refused to take sexual assault cases to court.
"And the chain of command in the military insisted that the case be taken inside the military chain of command," he said.
Of those cases, 25 resulted in a court-martial conviction.
"That's a 71 percent conviction rate," the chairman said. The civilian rate is between 18 and 22 percent.
Dempsey stressed that this was done because commanders insisted on taking these cases. "I worry that if we turn this over to somebody else, whether it's a civilian DA or an entity in the military, that they're going to make the same kind of decisions that those civilian prosecutors make," he said.
Commanders must be responsible for ensuring the command climate does not tolerate sexual assault in any manner, Winnefeld said.
"It's about teaching people what a heinous crime this is," he added. "It's about reporting it if you see it. It's about intervening if you see it about to happen -- a whole host of measures that commanders must take to establish the climate inside their commands."
The Marine Corps also had examples similar to the Army, the admiral said. The Marine Corps went back to 2010 and found 28 cases in which civilian prosecutors declined to take the case.
"Of those, 16 of them, the Marine Corps was able to obtain a conviction of court-martial -- 57 percent," Winnefeld said. "So those are 16 perpetrators that are no longer walking the street and 16 victims who received justice who would not have received it otherwise."