Military Sexual Assault Cases Already Higher than Last Year

File photo. iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- New Pentagon statistics show there were more reported sexual assaults in the military in the first nine months of fiscal year 2013 than in all of fiscal year 2012. Pentagon officials speculate some of the 3,553 reports filed between October, 2012 and June, 2013 might reflect increased confidence in seeking assistance and treatment through the military.  

The 3,553 reports of sexual assault complaints filed in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013 are already more than the 3,374 for all of fiscal year 2012. The 2013 numbers also represent a 46 percent increase over the same time period in 2012.

Each of the four military services showed increases over the same time period and there was a 64 percent increase in the number of restricted reports.  "Restricted reporting" enables sexual assault victims to get access to medical treatment and mental health counseling without notifying their chain of command.  At any time they can change their case to unrestricted reporting which notifies their chain of command and triggers an investigation.

The Pentagon’s annual sexual assault statistics are usually presented in the spring, but the preliminary numbers were presented  at a hearing held in Washington Thursday. The hearing was held by an independent panel charged by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel earlier this year with recommending changes to how the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assaults.   

Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the increased reporting “is consistent with a growing level of confidence in our response system.” He said that idea is supported by the “growing numbers of reports made by victims about incidents that took place prior to joining the military.”

Patton told the panel those numbers represented between nine and 10 percent of the reports filed in fiscal year 2013, the new figure is more than double the 3.9 percent reported in fiscal year 2012.  A slide presented at Thursday’s hearing speculated that the increased reporting “may imply a level of victim confidence in DoD response systems.”

The military’s sexual assault prevention programs came under scrutiny this year after a series of high-profile incidents involving some sexual assault prevention officers.  Around the same time, a Pentagon survey was released in May that estimated there were 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact, a 37 percent increase over the previous survey two years before.  

In the wake of those developments Hagel announced reforms to the military justice system and the way in which sexual assault cases are treated and stressed the need for accountability of commanders and how they deal with sexual assault cases.

The military services have also launched education and awareness initiatives for military commanders and both Hagel and his predecessor, Leon Panetta have stressed the need for greater accountability within the ranks.

Earlier this year the Air Force began providing a legal counsel to each victim of a sexual assault as a means of guiding them through the legal process.  The Special Victims’ Council Program was quickly made a part of the Air Force’s victim assistance program after it significantly reduced the number of victims who dropped their cases.

Putting a positive light on the numbers released Thursday, Patton said the increased reporting indicates that “the wide range of sexual assault prevention and response initiatives over the past year and a half are having a positive impact throughout the force, as more victims are reporting and accessing SAPR support."

The new Pentagon figures were released as the Senate prepares to debate controversial proposals to reform the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases.

The most controversial proposal, by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would  remove the prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command.  The idea is strongly opposed by the Pentagon and other members of Congress. Gillibrand failed in a previous bid to include the language in the military’s annual spending bill and is facing similar opposition in her effort to do the same with the Defense Authorization bill.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is among the bill’s opponents who have said the amendment must clear a 60 vote hurdle before it can be debated for inclusion in the bill.

Gillibrand has also placed a hold on the nomination of Jo Ann Rooney to be the Under Secretary of the Navy because she said at her confirmation hearing that the legislation might have a negative impact on discipline in the ranks.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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