How the Military Criminal Justice System Fails Civilian Victims of Sexual Assault

Under current law, only service members are eligible for the special counsel program

How the Military Criminal Justice System Fails Civilian Victims of Sexual Assault

Over the past decade, the topic of military sexual assault has become a matter of national interest. Long hidden behind the secrecy of military courts, it has become clear that hundreds of thousands of our service members — men and women both — have been traumatized after being sexually assaulted in the military.

According to a recent article by the Marshall Project — a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to uncovering stories about criminal justice matters — not every victim of military sexual assault receives an attorney. For service members, there is a special program that offers counsel for victims of military sexual assault. These attorneys will keep victims up to date on the case, explain the process, and protect them throughout the investigation process. These special victims’ counsels have been available since 2013 as advocates in the often complex military criminal justice system.

However, as an Irvine victims’ rights attorney, civilians who are victims of military sexual assault are not eligible for this type of representation because the National Defense Authorization Act does not specifically include civilian victims. In 2018 alone, over 900 civilians reported an assault by a service member.

The special victims’ counsel program plays an invaluable role in the military sexual assault process, particularly for service members who may themselves be brought up on charges (such as adultery) if they file a complaint of rape. These attorneys help to ensure fairness in the system, often protecting victims from prosecutors and investigators who may attempt to obtain personal information from them.

Yet for civilian victims, no such protection exists. Instead, they are left to navigate the system alone. This is particularly problematic given how complex the military criminal justice process is — and how opaque it is compared to regular criminal proceedings. This can leave victims of military sexual assault feeling unseen and unheard, without a way to even obtain information about their case.

According to Meg Garvin, the executive director of the National Crime Victims Law Institute, there are three entities in the criminal justice system: the defendant, state and the victim. “All three need to be heard. All three need to have legal counsel.”

A new bill, the Military Special Victims Protection Act of 2019, is currently before Congress. Sponsored by Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Krysten Sinema (D-Arizona), would extend the special counsel program to civilian victims. However, there are still too few advocates available to handle the number of military sexual assault cases currently pending.

In the non-military criminal justice system, having an Irvine victims’ rights attorney by your side can be a critical part of protecting your interests. Your lawyer can ensure that you are treated with respect and dignity, protect your privacy, and make sure that you are heard at proceedings. While the military criminal justice system may still require work to make sure that all victims entitled to this level of advocacy, Marsy’s Law in California gives victims of crime specific rights in criminal cases.

As former prosecutor, attorney Michael E. Fell represented the state’s interests in criminal cases. He now works exclusively for victims of crime in California. Justice 4 Crime Victims represents Californians who have been the victims of all types of crimes, advocating for their rights under Marsy’s Law and related federal and state laws. Contact our firm today at 949-585-9055 or to schedule a free initial consultation with an Irvine victims’ rights attorney.