WASHINGTON - Reports of sexual assaults in the U.S. military increased by an unprecedented 46 percent during the last fiscal year, the Defense Department said Thursday.
It wasn't possible to know whether the jump represented an increase in assaults, an increase in the percentage of people reporting them, or both. Defense Department officials portrayed the increase as a sign that people are more confident about coming forward now that improvements are being made to the military's system for handling assaults.
There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints from October 2012 through June, compared to 2,434 reports during the same period the previous year, according to statistics presented at the start of a two-day public meeting of an independent panel looking into the issue
An increase in reports was registered across all service branches -- Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. While statistics for the full fiscal year are not yet available, there were more reports of sexual assault in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013 than the 3,374 reported during the entire 2012 budget year.
Despite official data reported annually on sexual assaults, the Pentagon acknowledges that the actual number of assaults could be several times higher and that many assaults go uncounted because of reluctance in the military, as in the civilian sector, to report such crimes.
The department in recent years has started a number of programs aimed at boosting the confidence of victims, including holding awareness training across the forces and adding legal help and more social services for those reporting assaults.
The new data and Thursday's public meeting comes just weeks before the Senate is expected to take up a proposal to change how the military justice system deals with sexual assaults. The proposed legislation would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial, and it would give that authority to seasoned trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or higher.
Military leaders have argued that removing the decision from their purview would undercut the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline in their units.