When the children of U.S. service members sexually assault one another on a military base there often is no justice.
That’s because federal law governs civilians on many U.S. military installations, and federal prosecutors have little interest in pursuing juvenile sex assault cases. As a result, both victims seeking closure and young offenders needing treatment often receive neither, an Associated Press investigation found.
One solution, known as “retrocession,” offers some hope.
WHAT IS THAT?
It’s a legal process in which the Pentagon and a state’s governor or legislature transfer jurisdiction over juvenile cases that occur on base to local authorities, who have the resources and experience to counsel victims and rehabilitate, or punish, young offenders.
IS THIS AN EFFECTIVE SOLUTION?
Results are mixed.
Since the start of 2007, Army criminal investigators at Kentucky’s Fort Knox concluded that nine juvenile sex assault and rape cases were credible, AP found, and Hardin County court officials received eight felony criminal complaints.
Army investigators at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Washington, referred 14 cases to Pierce County, said Kevin Benton, the county’s chief juvenile prosecutor. But no charges were filed, mostly because of insufficient evidence, he said.
ARE THERE OTHER ALTERNATIVES?
Some bases have tried less formal fixes.
At Camp Pendleton, the Marines’ combat training base in Southern California, officials have been passing cases to San Diego County prosecutors for several years. “We’re trying to accomplish justice,” said Matt Brower, a deputy district attorney and a former military lawyer at Pendleton.
However, without a formal transfer of jurisdiction, legal experts say, a defense attorney could have grounds to argue that prosecutors cannot pursue charges.
ARE THERE OTHER BARRIERS?
Prosecutors who review civilian cases on base typically are military lawyers with little experience in civilian law. And they quickly learn that their Justice Department supervisors do not support them taking child sex offense cases, attorneys said.
Money also plays a role. Scott Stevens, a prosecutor in rural Coryell County, Texas, could not afford to meet the county’s needs and send all offenders from massive Fort Hood to secure juvenile sex offender treatment. “It would take maybe two or three of those to wipe out our entire placement budget for a year,” Stevens explained.
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
Given inaction by the Defense and Justice departments, some experts have suggested a comprehensive legislative fix, such as funding a mandate that state and local officials handle juvenile crimes on base.
Roger Haines was an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego in the 1980s when he tried to get Congress to mandate that states share jurisdiction over civilian crimes on federal installations. Base commanders objected, and state officials worried they would inherit new problems, said Haines, a 29-year federal prosecutor who wrote a book about the issue.
“The situation is so ridiculous,” Haines said. “It’s not an answer to simply say, ‘We can’t do anything.’”