Pentagon asks for review of juvenile prosecutions throughout Army

Pentagon asks for review of juvenile prosecutions throughout Army

by Jeremy Schwartz
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Military installations are primarily about the business of national defense. However, they are also about the families that support the servicemen and servicewomen engaged in that endeavor.

Unfortunately, there are times where the family and the mission at hand do not fit neatly in an Army post's organizational structure. Such is the case with sexual assaults by juveniles.

An American-Statesman investigation by Jeremy Schwartz and Rose L. Thayer this month highlighted the jurisdictional black hole created by the overlapping needs of the military and federal justice system at Fort Hood. Juvenile crime, especially sexual assault cases involving juveniles, is rarely prosecuted, leaving family members, who in some cases are related to both the victim and the perpetrator, to cope without support or resolution.

There is no clear authority for prosecuting juvenile crime on military installations. Military courts cannot prosecute civilians — and the federal system responsible for civilian crime is ill-equipped to pick up most juvenile cases.

Fortunately, it appears Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter of Round Rock, who represents parts of Fort Hood, have taken up the cause and requested that the Army, the Department of Justice, and state and local officials look at finding a solution. Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, who also represents parts of Fort Hood, indicated to us that he would monitor the issue.

The problem is not unique to Fort Hood, which is one of the nation's most populous military installations. However, other installations have worked out collaborative agreements with local prosecutors to take these sensitive cases.

The scope of the problem is significant. A document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows 670 reported incidents of juvenile crime from 2010 to 2015, including a dozen sex crimes. An internal Fort Hood legal memo obtained by the Statesman details more juvenile sexual assaults — 39 between 2006 and 2012 — resulting in no federal prosecutions and just a handful of cases referred to local prosecutors.

And there have been complaints dating back to 2005, when an Army investigator complained about a lack of legal action against a 16-year-old male accused of molesting a 5-year-old girl in 2001.

Fort Hood officials have said they are looking into the problem. According to Schwartz and Thayer, in 2012 an internal communications urged Fort Hood leaders to consider giving local authorities limited jurisdiction over parts of the post as a remedy to the lack of juvenile prosecutions, though it is unclear if the message reached commanders.

Fort Hood officials told the Statesman that Fort Hood's commander, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who is currently serving overseas as head of the coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, has the "intent … to utilize every resource available to appropriately address allegations of criminal misconduct in an effort to protect all persons and property present on the installation and in the surrounding community."

There are models worth exploring at other Army installations. Fort Knox in Kentucky gave jurisdiction of juvenile crime to local authorities more than 15 years ago. Minor cases are sent to a juvenile diversion program, while more serious offenses are referred to the state criminal justice system.

Fort Meade in Maryland has a similar agreement, called a retrocession agreement, with local authorities given jurisdiction over specific areas of the installation, including housing and schools where juveniles engage in normal, daily activities. Fort Hood has no such agreement and neither does the state's other major Army post, Fort Bliss in El Paso.

The importance of enforcement and an appropriate juvenile justice response is profound. First, it protects the victims who may live or go to school with the perpetrators. But it also can put the offender on the path to rehabilitation. Habitual juvenile sex offenders run the real risk of growing up to be adult offenders with unfettered access to children and vulnerable populations unless legal restrictions are put on their movements or they are rehabilitated through appropriate treatment.

Bell and Coryell county prosecutors are rightfully concerned about the cost of taking on jurisdiction in these cases, which is precisely why an agreement spelling out the responsibilities of the military, federal and local authorities is necessary.

With frequent deployments and relocations, life as a military family can be difficult and disruptive all on its own. The ethos on military installations is that the community takes care of its own. Families shouldn't have to worry about whether they will fall through the cracks of the federal legal system if the nightmare of sexual assault happens to one of their children or is committed by their child.

These families go where their government tells them to go. Their government needs to do what it takes to hold up its end of the bargain.

©2015 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
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 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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