The number of sexual assaults in the military reported by victims increased to 6,769 in 2017, a 10 percent increase over the numbers for 2016 and the largest percentage increase in four years, the Pentagon said Monday.
Pentagon officials have often cited increases in the number of reports by victims as an indicator of greater awareness of the care and responses available to victims in the military. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, charged "accountability for sexual assault offenders is going down."
According to the numbers released Monday, the number of victims reporting sexual assaults rose to a record high of 6,769 in 2017, up 10 percent from 6,172 in 2016.
It is a sharp increase from the 1.5 percent increase reported in 2016.
Each of the military services saw large increases in the number of reports of sexual assaults from the previous year with the Marine Corps reporting the largest spike, a 14.7 percent increase in 2017. The Army reported an increase of 8.4 percent, the Navy 9.3 percent and the Air Force a 9.2 percent increase in reporting.
“More service members than ever are making the courageous decision to report their experiences and to receive restorative care,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, the executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency for the Department of Defense.
“While the progress we’ve seen provides some comfort, we neither take it for granted nor are we are under any illusions that our work is done,” Van Winkle added. “In fact, we see this progress as cautionary and recognize one of the greatest threats to progress is complacency.”
Defense officials correlated the increased number of reports with better information about the medical care and legal options available to military victims of sexual assault.
This year’s spike in victim reports was likely attributed “to people hearing their commanders or leadership talking about how important this is, that no one should have to tolerate sexual assault,” said Nathan Galbreath, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).
Every two years the Pentagon conducts a survey that estimates the prevalence of sexual assaults in the military. The 2016 survey estimated there were 14,900 sexual assaults in 2016, down from the 20,300 reported in the 2014 survey.
Defense officials said that the next survey to be conducted later this year should put in context whether the increased numbers reflect progress within DOD’s efforts to counter sexual assault.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the increase in servicemembers reporting their experiences reflect a growing trust in the system and the resources available to them,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle.
But she also cautioned, “we await the 2018 survey to assess if this is, instead, a reflection of an increase in crime.”
Military victims of sexual assault are allowed to file their reports openly in what are known as unrestricted reports, that can lead to prosecution, or confidentially through restricted reports where the victim receives medical care but does not trigger an investigation.
Victims can switch the status from restricted to unrestricted at any time.
And according to the Pentagon's latest statistics, switching status appears to be happening with greater frequency as 24 percent of restricted reports in 2017 were converted to unrestricted reports.
Ten percent of the total number sexual assaults involved victims reporting sexual assaults prior to their having joined the military. The Defense Department's annual sexual assault statistics include reports from victims currently serving in the military, as well as service members who may have been the victim of a sexual assault prior to entering military service.
A frequent critic of the Pentagon's efforts to reduce sexual assault, Sen. Gillibrand criticized the decrease in the percentage of cases that actually went to trial or ended in convictions.
“This SAPRO report released by DoD today shows that more sexual predators are getting off the hook and fewer survivors are getting the justice they deserved," said Gillibrand. "While reports might be up, accountability for sexual assault offenders is going down."
Nathan Galbreath speculated that the decrease in cases proceeding to trial was due to a combination of factors, namely that some of the reported incidents lacked sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.