TOKYO -- At U.S. military bases in Japan, most service members found culpable in sex crimes in recent years did not go to prison, according to internal Department of Defense documents. Instead, in a review of hundreds of cases filed in America's largest overseas military installation, offenders were fined, demoted, restricted to their bases or removed from the military.
In about 30 cases, a letter of reprimand was the only punishment.
More than 1,000 records, obtained by The Associated Press, describe hundreds of cases in graphic detail, painting a disturbing picture of how senior American officers prosecute and punish troops accused of sex crimes. The handling of allegations verged on the chaotic, with seemingly strong cases often reduced to lesser charges. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped the charges.
Even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed, the suspect was unlikely to serve time. Of 244 service members whose punishments were detailed in the records, only a third of them were incarcerated.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who leads the Senate Armed Services' personnel subcommittee, said Sunday the records are "disturbing evidence" that there are commanders who refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases.
"The men and women of our military deserve better," said Gillibrand. "They deserve to have unbiased, trained military prosecutors reviewing their cases, and making decisions based solely on the merits of the evidence in a transparent way."
Air Force Col. Alan Metzler, deputy director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the department "has been very transparent that we do have a problem." He said a raft of changes in military law is creating a culture where victims trust that their allegations will be taken seriously and perpetrators will be punished.
The number of sexual assault cases taken to courts-martial has grown steadily -- from 42 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in 2012, according to DOD figures. In 2012, of the 238 service members convicted, 74 percent served time.
That trend is not reflected in the Japan cases. Out of 473 sexual assault allegations within Navy and Marine Corps units, just 116, or 24 percent, ended up in courts-martial. In the Navy, one case in 2012 led to court-martial, compared to 13 in which commanders used non-judicial penalties instead.
The authority to decide how to prosecute serious criminal allegations would be taken away from senior officers under a bill crafted by Gillibrand that is expected to come before the Senate this week. The bill would place that responsibility with the trial counsel who has prosecutorial experience.
Senior U.S. military leaders oppose the plan.
"Taking the commander out of the loop never solved any problem," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the personnel subcommittee's top Republican. "It would dismantle the military justice system beyond sexual assaults. It would take commanders off the hook for their responsibility to fix this problem."
Gillibrand and her supporters argue that the cultural shift the military needs won't happen if commanders retain their current role in the legal system.
"Skippers have had this authority since the days of John Paul Jones and sexual assaults still occur," said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and senior fellow at the Women in the Military Project. "And this is where we are."