The Army last week unveiled two new steps in its effort to revamp how it responds to sexual harassment and assault in the ranks, bringing the service closer to compliance with congressionally mandated reform targets.
As required by the annual defense bill for 2022, the Army officially established an independent prosecutor’s office, reporting to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, according to a general order made public Thursday.
The Army also announced it had implemented a “safe-to-report” policy, which shields sexual assault victims from discipline for minor misconduct — such as underage drinking — that may emerge as part of an investigation into the assault. Congress mandated the services adopt such policies in the fiscal 2021 defense bill.
One of the Army’s senior civilians overseeing reforms to its troubled Sexual Assault/Harassment Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, indicated that more changes will come.
“We continue to look for ways to improve the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program,” said Dr. James A. Helis, who leads the Army Resilience Directorate. “This directive helps reduce the stigma associated with reporting, so offenders can be held accountable for their actions and victims can get the support they need to heal.”
The mandated reforms come two months after a government watchdog called out SHARP policy as “disjointed [and] unclear.” Long-promised centralized guidance documents were still missing nearly two years after the reports of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee and the Defense Department’s Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military.
While the Army has already made several changes to SHARP, including piloting centralized resource centers on six installations, the Government Accountability Office pushed the service to pick up the pace on reforms.
What’s changing, and when
By September of next year, the new Office of Special Trial Counsel will handle prosecution decisions and trial work for several major crimes, removing those decisions from commanders throughout the force.
According to an Army release, the following types of crime will be prosecuted by the new office:
- Sexual assault
- Child sex crimes, including child pornography
- Wrongful broadcast of intimate images
- Other sexual misconduct
- Domestic violence
The new office will be headed by a general officer from the service’s uniformed lawyer corps, who will report directly to Wormuth.
The safe-to-report policy, which Wormuth established via an Army directive, is already in effect.
The new policy forbids commanders from punishing sexual assault victims for minor misconduct they may have been committing when they were assaulted.
Studies have shown that victims who are afraid of facing punishment — even for minor offenses like underage drinking, fraternization or curfew violations — are less likely to report their assault, according to an Army release.
When deciding whether misconduct is “minor” and thus forgiven by the policy, commanders should consider both mitigating circumstances, such as the victim’s rank and experience level or whether there was a pattern of behavior, the directive said. Commanders should also consider aggravating circumstances, like impact to a military mission or harm to others (excluding self-defense), the directive added.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.