Department of Defense removes authority over major crimes from commanders to special trial units News
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Department of Defense removes authority over major crimes from commanders to special trial units

The US Department of Defense (DOD) announced on Thursday that new Offices of Special Trial Counsel (OSTC) will have authority over the decision to prosecute a number of serious crimes committed in the branches of the military, including sexual assaults, removing certain cases from an accused service member’s chain of command.

Before the OSTC reform, once an investigation was completed, Chapter 3 of the Manual for Courts-Martial granted immediate commanders discretion to dispose of offenses, take no action on an offense or take administrative action limited to corrective measures. The OSTC reform changed Chapter 3 of the Manual for Courts-Martial to add a special trial counsel. Commanders will only have the discretion to initially dispose of certain offenses over which the special trial counsel does not exercise authority. If a commander receives charges containing offenses covered by the special trial counsel, the commander has to forward the charges to the special trial counsel for determination.

OSTC will be staffed by specially trained military attorneys. The entire list of offenses that will fall under the authority of OSTC includes murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, domestic violence, stalking, child pornography and most sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Sexual harassment will be added to the list in January 2025. OSTC’s officers are to report directly to the secretaries of the military departments.

OSTC reform, in terms of sexual assault, will only apply to unrestricted reporting. DOD has two ways a survivor of sexual assault can report a crime: an unrestricted report and a restricted report. Restricted reports allow a survivor to confidentially report a crime to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), SAPR Victim Advocate (SAPR VA) or Healthcare Provider or Personnel. Once a restricted report is made, the survivor receives medical and mental healthcare, advocacy and legal advice without notifying command or law enforcement. SARC is obligated to notify the installation commander about an assault but without providing details and names. The survivor can then choose to file an unrestricted report if they choose.

An unrestricted report can be made by a survivor to any of the following channels: law enforcement, commander, SARC, SAPR VA or healthcare personnel. An unrestricted report initiates an official investigation and notification to the command. OSTC reform means that survivors of sexual assault do not have to rely on the discretion of the accused commander to press charges in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice.