Even as many in Congress are pushing back against mandatory minimum sentences, there’s one area where they are popular — sexual assaults in the military.
The House Armed Services Committee last week approved an amendment that would impose a two-year minimum sentence on uniformed service members convicted of rape, sexual assault of a child or forced sodomy, trying to bring the military’s penalties in line with those in many states.
“If you commit a sexual assault on base or if you commit one off base, you should be held to the same standards of mandatory minimums,” Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican and author of the amendment, said during last week’s annual defense policy debate in the committee.
It’s a repeat of a fight Congress had behind the scenes last year, when the House included the mandatory minimum in its annual bill, only to see it stripped out when lawmakers worked out differences with the Senate.
Under current law, any service member convicted of sex assault must be discharged and will have to register as a sex offender, but might not serve any jail time, said Cully Stimson, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
In the civilian world, mandatory minimums were instituted to prevent “judge shopping” for the lightest possible sentence, Mr. Stimson said, as judges were handing out very different sentences to similar people committing similar crimes across the country.
In practice, however, mandatory minimums were applied unfairly, Mr. Stimson said, and lawmakers have been working to roll back minimum sentences.
Sens. Patrick J. Leahy and Rand Paul introduced a bipartisan bill last year that would allow judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in all federal crimes. Members of the administration have also been working to soften mandatory minimums. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in March that he supported an effort to dole out the harshest punishments to only the most serious drug criminals.
In the military, however, there are no sentencing guidelines other than for first degree murder, treason and spying — all punishable by life in prison or death.
“If you are convicted of rape and found guilty, or convicted of burglary or robbery or aggravated assault, the jury which sentences or judge has the option of awarding no punishment,” Mr. Stimson said. “Our sentences are actually much, much lower than you get in the civilian world. Everyone thinks military justice is harsh, ‘throw the book at them and they go away forever,’ but the opposite is true.”
Mr. Stimson, who still serves in the Navy reserves as a judge advocate general, said a mandatory minimum sentence for sex crimes is “a conversation Congress should have.”
Greg Jacob, a former Marine and policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network, agreed that the military justice system is weak and sentences lack uniformity.
But he said mandatory minimums are applied unfairly to minorities in civilian courts, and he doesn’t want to see that spill over into the military.
While all sides agree that sexual assault is a problem in the military, there are widely divergent views on how to combat it.
Mr. Jacob said the solution isn’t stiffer mandatory sentences, but rather a change in who decides what crimes go to trial. His group wants to see independent military lawyers, rather than commanders, given the final say.
“You can set up all these things to try to make all of these convening authorities do something the right way, or you can give it to the lawyers who are trained to do it and are trained to do it the right way,” he said.
The House Armed Services Committee last week rejected several proposals to make that change.