Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James testify March 26 at the House Appropriations Committee in Washington, D.C. (Scott M. Ash / Air Force)
Air Force policy changes for sexual assault, including creation of the special victims counsel program, have led to a 33 percent increase in reporting of assaults and an increase in prosecution rates, top service officials said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the jump in reporting is because service members are “more comfortable believing that reporting is a good thing.”
“It’s given victims more confidence,” James said at a March 26 House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing. “Additionally, it has helped to turn some restricted reports into unrestricted reports. And, as everybody knows, the key difference there is when a victim makes a restricted report, they can get counseling and help, but we don’t get told anything and, therefore, it can’t be investigated.”
The Air Force created the special victims counsel program in January 2013 following a series of high-profile instances of sexual assault and allegations of a broken justice system. The cadre of 24 attorneys answer to an independent chain of command and guide airmen through a complex, lengthy and often daunting legal system, representing them in interviews with investigators and in court proceedings.
The program has proven popular: 300 airmen elected to have a special victims counsel in the first four months of the program; by December, that number had doubled. Participants are also overwhelmingly satisfied with the services they get.
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said before the special victims counsel, about 13 percent of victims would transition from a restricted to an unrestricted report. However, airmen now receiving assistance from a special victims counsel transition to an unrestricted report at a rate of almost 50 percent.
“There are lots of things that go into this increased confidence,” Welsh said at the hearing. “We believe that we are seeing it in willingness to report.”
Additionally, Welsh said that over the past two years, he has seen a doubling of prosecution rates, along with an increase in conviction rates.
Air Force leaders hoped that by providing attorneys to sexual assault victims, more would agree to see their cases through to court-martial. About a third of victims generally back out after agreeing to cooperate in the prosecution of their alleged attackers.
“Prosecution isn’t the goal,” Welsh said. “The right outcome is the goal. But if we investigate better, we should prosecute more. All of that will contribute to increased confidence.”
In addition to the special victims counsel, Welsh said Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents are going through new investigation training programs, and special prosecutors are trained in a different way to handle sexual assault cases.
James said the service is also studying how to prevent predators from entering the Air Force. This includes looking at private-sector research to “come up with a better knowledge about the profiles of people, to recognize people in advance.” The Air Force is also looking at changing the questioning of new recruits to try to “root out predators.”
“There have been lots of positive trends,” Welsh said. “None of that is good enough. We have to continue the trends, accelerate the trends, figure out where the other game-changing approaches are and keep charging toward the only acceptable number, which is zero.”