A Defense Department report this month found that fewer men and women in uniform said they were subjected to unwanted sexual attention last year and that there has been an increase in victims reporting sex-related crimes. The improvements are, at best, incremental and overshadowed by the unsettling statistic that 62 percent of women who filed sexual assault complaints last year said they faced retaliation for doing so. Reforms that have been put in place, while commendable, are clearly not sufficient to combat a problem so deep-rooted it has plagued the military for decades.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is right in saying enough is enough. We hope her renewed push to correct a major defect in how these crimes are investigated and prosecuted gains traction in Congress.

The Pentagon report used a workplace survey to estimate that 18,900 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact or assault last year, down from 26,000 in 2012 but in line with 19,300 reported in 2010. Seventy-six percent of servicewomen and nearly half of servicemen who were surveyed said sexual harassment is common or very common. Victims are so distrustful about getting fair treatment that only a fraction of those who are assaulted report the offense.

An analysis recently conducted by Gillibrand of 107 sexual assault case files from major bases in 2013 illustrates some of the reasons for that distrust. Lenient punishments were common, as were cases in which the word of the accused trumped that of the accuser. Less than a quarter of the cases went to trial, with only 11 resulting in conviction for a sex crime. Gillibrand wants to overhaul the military justice system so that independent, trained prosecutors, rather than commanding officers with little legal expertise and built-in conflicts of interest, would decide which cases to investigate and prosecute.

A number of retired military officials, including those with experience handling these cases, such as former Air Force chief prosecutor Don Christensen, agree on the need for fundamental change. Christensen, now president of Protect Our Defenders, told us that the climate in which sexual harassment is seen as the norm won’t change as long as decisions about prosecution are made by those who create the climate. Gillibrand’s bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, last year got 55 votes, including from such conservative Republican senators as Ted Cruz, Texas, and Rand Paul, Ky., but lacked the 60 ayes needed to break a filibuster.

By the Pentagon’s own numbers, an average of 52 service members receive unwanted sexual attention every day. Considering that zero tolerance was first promised in 1992 by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, it’s time to help fulfill that promise.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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