February 21, 2021

Victims rights prioritized in U.S. military justice reform

The U.S. military has made significant improvements in its justice system over the last 20 years, perhaps most notably in its handling of sexual harassment and assault within its ranks.

Representatives of the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps discussed these changes online Feb. 19 during “Military Justice—Learning and Leading Change in American Criminal Justice” at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting.

Department of Defense data shows 7,825 reports of sexual assault in all branches of the military in fiscal year 2019. And the Army had the highest number with 2,684 reports of sexual assault.

Over the years, the military has sought ways to better address the problem, particularly in making it easier and safer for victims to report cases, said Lt. Col. Adam Kazin, chief for the Criminal Law Division Policy Branch.

In 2005, the Department of Defense established a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program. And eight years later, the military created the Special Victim Counsel program, which provides legal representation to victims and helps them at every stage of the justice process.  Each branch of the military has such a program, though it may go by a different name.

“We give [victims] a voice, empower them, and protect their interests and rights,” explained Col. Lance Hamilton, who is chief of the Army’s SVC program.

Hamilton said that SVC is unique to the military. “We ensure that [victims] have a voice in consulting with the trial counsel on a way forward; ensure their rights are protected from the accused; we see that they are present at all proceedings,” he said, elaborating many of the program’s area of service.

The Army’s SVC program has expanded from just representing active-duty soldiers to now serving reservists, dependent children who are victims of sex assault offenses, DoD civilian employees and, since 2018, victims of domestic violence.

“We’ve grown to point where now take on more than 2,000 new clients per year,” Hamilton said.

“Military Justice—Learning and Leading Change in American Criminal Justice” was sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section. The panel also included Lt. Cols. Rebecca Farrell, Philip Staten and Angela Swilley; Maj. Scott Goble served as moderator.