JEFFERSON CITY — One month after a U.S. Senate panel lambasted Defense Department leaders over the military's erratic response to sexual assaults in its ranks, Sen. Claire McCaskill returned to Missouri to reiterate her push for tougher punishments of such crimes.
The Democratic senator and former Jackson County prosecutor met Wednesday with top brass from the Missouri National Guard at its Jefferson City headquarters. And while McCaskill's tone was decidedly softer than the outrage she and other lawmakers expressed at the Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in early March, she again emphasized the need to crack down on military sex assaults.
"My number one goal here is to prosecute these people and put them in prison," McCaskill said. "It's not (about) the buddy system. It's not educating women on how to avoid circumstances where they might be a victim. It's about getting after the criminals."
McCaskill has introduced legislation to revise the Uniform Code of Military Justice to prohibit commanders from overturning jury verdicts in military tribunals. Those leaders would also have to explain in writing any decisions to reduce sentences after guilty verdicts in courts-martial.
The proposal was a response to a decision by Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin to reverse a guilty verdict given to a lieutenant colonel for sexually assaulting a female civilian employee at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. Several victims of military sexual assault told the Senate committee their cases were not adequately adjudicated or their assailants not suitably punished.
Nearly 2,500 sexual violence cases in the military services were reported in 2011, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said at the Washington hearing, but only 240 made it to trial. About 70 percent of the reports were for rape, aggravated sexual assault or nonconsensual sodomy. Many more cases of unwanted sexual contact go unreported. Gillibrand said the Defense Department estimates the actual number of cases in 2011 would have been closer to 19,000.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner, the Missouri guard's adjutant general, described its efforts to better coordinate mental health treatment for the state's citizen soldier by putting programs aimed at suicide prevention and sexual assault reduction under a single administrative umbrella known as the Patriot Center. McCaskill commended those efforts, which she called a model for other states.
"We need to make sure that what's happened here in Missouri is replicated in other states," she said.
The accolades were relative, though. Moments after boasting about the several dozen victim advocates working for the Missouri National Guard, one administrator described the loss of a civilian supervisor in that unit because of budget cuts. Calls for increased funding of victim-assistance programs were frequent during the hour-long discussion.