MJIA: The Right Approach to Military Justice with the Right Kinds of Cases

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C.S. Lewis, in the character of a demon in The Screwtape Letters instructing a protege on how lead men to Hell, notes that murder is no better than cards, if cards will do the trick. Lewis was talking about sin, of course, and which ones could successfully separate a person from God. But a limited analogy can be drawn between Screwtape’s analysis and the subtle circumstances that can thwart criminal justice. Cynicism, perfidy and incompetence are all well-known enemies; players in the system influenced by these will fail victims and their community. But there are also more subtle, even inadvertent circumstances that can hinder justice as well.

In almost three years as a civilian expert with the Army JAG Corps, I encountered almost exclusively highly competent, honorable and devoted trial lawyers both prosecuting and defending criminal cases. I also largely found commanders- the decision makers within the military system- to be fair-minded, conscientious and decent.

Still, at least in terms of how the concept of criminal justice is viewed in the civilian world, I saw systemic aspects of military justice that, despite best intentions, somtimes stand as impediments to the kind of justice we expect in response to serious crimes. These are best confronted by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act.  

Military expedience and deference, in particular, can have unintended negative consequences, at least in the cases I consulted on, which included rape, assault and murder. Expedience is demanded in the court martial system given the common exigencies of military life. There must also be great deference, not only to individuals of higher rank, but also to the institution itself.

These are not negative in and of themselves; indeed, they are important principles of an institution that must be cohesive, responsive and lethal. Service members willingly accept a lower value on individuality for the good of the institution. Being a part of the military is a very different experience from civilian life. Its justice system should and does reflect these differences.

But when it comes to felonies, particularly ones not instantly related to military readiness, it does not have to. That is the thrust of the Military Justice Improvement Act.

Under it, commanders, the men and women responsible for increasingly larger units within the ranks, can and will continue to have complete judicial authority where mission-specific crimes like desertion, insubordination, and espionage are concerned. What will shift, partially, will be the responsibility for deciding the merit for prosecution of more traditional felonies like sexual violence, murder and robbery. These crimes can certainly affect a unit’s readiness and cohesiveness, but they have a decreased relationship to military operations, and a profoundly different effect on victims. Traditional, often interpersonal crimes deserve an approach both 1) unhindered by the larger concerns of the command and 2) enhanced through handling by specially trained, unformed legal experts. Sexual violence in particular, given its utter uniqueness in criminality, demands this approach and thus has largely inspired it.

In the meantime, commanders will still have involvement over cases, including supervision of the accused and the victim during the process, and the opportunity to seek lesser disciplinary action in the event that a case is not referred for prosecution. We ask more from military commanders than ever before; the vast majority respond honorably and competently. But asking commanders, even with legal counsel, to make decisions about interpersonal crimes- particularly when inextricably burdened with concerns about unit effectiveness- is both unnecessary and potentially detrimental.

Where sexual violence is concerned, critics point to the willingness of commanders in most cases to pursue charges against offenders, and this is a fair point. But we only know about what is reported, and a major belief behind the MJIA is that the direct involvement of commanders in criminal justice decisions has a chilling effect. This is more than a hunch; it’s been gleaned from surveys, interviews and the accounts of service members over time.

The MJIA is not a panacea for sexual violence or other major crime in the United States military. But it is an idea far less radical than critics charge and worth implementing to bring one aspect of military justice- and only one- in line with that of the larger world.

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