The Department of Veterans Affairs is asking Congress to pass legislation prohibiting veterans charged with the most serious category of sex crimes from interment in veterans' cemeteries.
The proposed ban would go further than current law prohibiting convicted and registered Tier III sex offenders from being buried in VA cemeteries by barring those who die before being convicted or who flee to avoid prosecution.
Tier III sex offenders are those convicted of aggravated sexual abuse, or sexual abuse or abusive sexual contact against a minor under age 13, according to federal statute.
In 2011, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Missouri, sponsored the Hallowed Grounds Act, which was signed by President Obama in January 2013.
The law put Tier III sex offenders in the same category as veterans convicted of capital crimes, who have been barred from veteran cemetery burials since 1997. That year, President Clinton signed legislation to ensure Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, convicted of blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, would not be eligible for such interment.
Veterans groups backed the intent of Hartzler's bill.
According to VA spokesman James Hutton, a veteran already may be forbidden a VA cemetery or Arlington National Cemetery burial in the event he dies before being convicted if he is being prosecuted for a Tier III sex offense under federal statute.
"In other words, the deciding factor is whether prosecution would have occurred at the federal or state level ... and the choice of which body of law is applied depends solely on law enforcement and prosecutorial discretion," Hutton said.
The VA's legislative proposal would amend the definition of a state capital crime to include Tier III sex offenses, Hutton said, thereby filling a statutory gap and eliminating inconsistent -- federal or state -- application of the law for the same offense.
The VA is not the first to ask for the change. The U.S. Army appealed to Congress for the same kind of bill during a 2012 hearing to consider Hartzler's bill. "There is no provision in the [Hallowed Grounds Act] for those accused but not yet convicted," Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, told lawmakers. "And we would like to work with the [Congress] if we could ... to insert suitable language in the bill that would address this concern."
The ban on burying accused Tier III sex offenders in VA cemeteries is one of more than a dozen legislative proposals being sought by the VA as part of its budget request for next year. These include proposals to allow the VA to furnish government headstones and markers for the privately marked graves of all Medal of Honor recipients; tie the authorized burial allowance to the Consumer Price Index; expand eligibility for grave medallions; and expand certain benefits to veterans buried on tribal lands.
The VA said the costs associated with providing government headstones and markers for privately marked MoH recipient graves would be insignificant.
Currently, the VA may pay no more than a $300 burial allowance. Tying the allowance to the CPI would cost $471,000 in 2017. Over a 10-year period, the VA expects the allowance will total $83 million.
The VA also wants to honor requests for grave medallions from families of veterans who died before Nov. 1, 1990, and were buried with a government headstone. Before that date, the medallions were available only for vets buried with a privately bought headstone, said Raymond Kelly, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
If you were buried with a government headstone, you were not eligible, he said, but there has long been a demand for the medallions among veterans' families.
"They're doing the right thing" with this, he said.
The VA estimates it will cost about $480,000 in 2017 and just over $5 million over a 10-year period.
In other proposed legislation, the VA is looking for expanded or new authorities to provide benefits to veterans buried on tribal lands.
Among these: authority to provide headstones and markers to the eligible spouses and dependents at tribal veteran cemeteries; provide caskets and urns for the unclaimed remains of eligible veterans buried in state and tribal cemeteries; and provide an allowance to transport certain deceased veterans to state and tribal veterans cemeteries
VA officials said the first provision would cost VA about $890,000 over 10 years.
Officials said there "are no benefit costs or savings associated" with the proposals to provide caskets and urns, or to transport some veterans to state or tribal cemeteries.