The Coast Guard has updated its guidance on sexual assault response and prosecution following changes to military law that gave military attorneys, not commanders, the responsibility to decide whether such cases should be prosecuted.
The changes, which also give broader access to services to former cadets and recruits who were victims of sexual assault, follow a series of failures by the service to investigate cases of rape and assault at the Coast Guard Academy and elsewhere.
In April, the Coast Guard updated its Sexual Assault Prevention, Response and Recovery Program, known as SAPRR, in response to the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, and in anticipation of an executive order by President Joe Biden, that required the services to establish independent counsel to review and oversee serious crimes, including sexual assault, stripping commanders of that decision authority.
The service announced Thursday that it has established the changes to comply with the order, saying that for all offenses covered under it that occur on or after Dec. 27, a special trial counsel, working under the Coast Guard's Office of the Chief Prosecutor, will have "exclusive authority" to exercise court-martial jurisdiction in serious crimes.
The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force have established their new special trial counsel offices, which also will assume authority over prosecution decisions on Dec. 27. Beginning Jan. 1, 2025, that prosecution authority will expand to include sexual harassment cases.
The Coast Guard also gave its Office of the Chief Prosecutor exclusive jurisdiction in deciding whether any misconduct by a victim, bystander or witness concurrent with an alleged assault, such as drug use, intoxication or dereliction of duty, should be pursued by the legal system -- a move that is designed to encourage reporting and discourage retaliation by commanders, who currently have that authority, against those who step forward.
Defense Department surveys have found that victims and witnesses may be reluctant to report an incident of sexual assault or harassment, because they fear retribution or prosecution for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that occurred alongside the alleged assault.
Via a Coast Guard-wide message, Rear Adm. Dana Thomas, assistant commandant for health, safety and work-life, also announced several additional changes designed to protect victims during an investigation of sexual assault.
Under the updates, special victims' counsel may now attend the crisis intervention team meetings that are required to be held within 24 hours of a victim filing a report of an assault.
Previously, such attorneys weren't listed among the group of "stakeholders" who are supposed to meet to discuss the incident, provide services to the victim and determine a way forward.
Thomas also clarified the role of commanders during these meetings, noting that "certain matters" should not be discussed, such as command legal advice or case disposition. The new regulation also encourages the team to protect the victim.
"The members should also take every precaution to safeguard the victim's privacy, particularly with regards to details about the victim's medical and mental health care," the new policy states.
Notably, the update to the Coast Guard's sexual assault response policies also provides all sexual assault, prevention, response and recovery services to former Coast Guard Academy cadets and recruits.
Previously, cadets and recruits who did not graduate were only eligible for information and referral to community support, not command support, investigations, legal counsel and medical care under the service's SAPRR program.
The change follows revelations that the service did not take corrective action when it failed to handle cases of sexual assault and harassment at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for years, and then again did little to pursue the crimes or support victims following a six-year internal investigation into the problem.
The investigation results, which were never publicly revealed by the Coast Guard and were first reported by CNN, identified 62 substantiated incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment at the academy or by cadets from 1988 through 2006.
Most of the alleged perpetrators never were criminally investigated, and those who remained in the service went on to become senior officers. Many of the alleged victims "left the academy after reporting their assaults" with devastating impacts on their health, relationships and non-military careers, according to the report.
Last year, the House Homeland Security Committee found that the service also failed to follow required procedures after a report of sexual assault by a recruit at the Coast Guard Training Center Cape May in New Jersey in 2018.
Coast Guard recruit Ke'ha Maldonado was dropped from training as a result of "acculturation difficulties," according to the Coast Guard. But the day before he was scheduled to leave Cape May, he filed a sexual assault report, alleging he had been attacked in a barracks shower just weeks into training and his poor performance was related to that incident.
An 18-month investigation by the Homeland Security Committee found that Maldonado did not get the support he needed or the response required by law to his allegations.
In a Dec. 16 letter to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan, committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the service failed to submit a Sexual Assault Incident Report form within 72 hours as required, had discharged Maldonado without proving appropriate trauma care and knew about the inappropriate behavior, having "allowed it to perpetuate."
In a letter in March to Thompson, Fagan promised that the Coast Guard would update its policies to ensure that separating service members who are the victims of sexual assault would receive appropriate care and that all former service members who had been assaulted would have access to SAPRR services and support.
Reports of sexual assault within the Coast Guard have dropped, from 245 in fiscal 2020 to 202 in fiscal 2021, according to a report by the service to Congress. In fiscal year 2021, a dozen cases were prosecuted, resulting in eight convictions.
While reports of sexual assault are on the decline in the Coast Guard, the Defense Department's 2021 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Military Members found that assaults may be on the rise. That year, 3.3% of Coast Guard active-duty women said they had been sexually assaulted, up from 3.1% in 2018 and 2% in 2016.
Biden signed the executive order updating the Uniform Code of Military Justice on July 28.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter and Threads @patriciakime