More inmates are in U.S. military prisons for sex crimes against children than for any other offense, an Associated Press investigation has found, but an opaque justice system prevents the public from knowing the full scope of the crimes or how much time the prisoners spend behind bars.
Of the 1,233 inmates confined in the military’s prison network, 61 percent were convicted of sex crimes, according to the latest available data, obtained through the federal open-records law. Children were the victims in more than half of those cases.
Since the beginning of this year, service members victimized children in 133 out of 301 sex-crime convictions, with charges ranging from rape to distributing child pornography.
Child-sex assaults in the military have received scant attention in Washington, where Congress and the Defense Department have focused largely on preventing and prosecuting adult-on-adult sex crimes.
“This disturbing report exposes, once again, that our military’s justice system has glaring and unacceptable failures,” Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass, said Wednesday of the investigation. Tsongas, co-chairwoman of the congressional Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said she would be taking a closer look at the “alarming findings.”
Daniel E. DeSmit, a Marine Corps chief warrant officer, spent at least $36,000 viewing and producing child pornography over the span of six years. In emails examined by Navy criminal investigators, DeSmit described his preference for sex with prepubescent girls as “the best experience.”
A military judge in January found DeSmit, 44, guilty of a litany of sex offenses and sentenced him to 144 years behind bars. But he’ll serve only a fraction of that. In an undisclosed pretrial agreement, the Marine Corps slashed his prison term to 20 years.
When asked for the investigative report into DeSmit’s case, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service rejected the Freedom of Information Act request on privacy grounds. The report was released after an appeal.
The military justice system operates independently of state and federal criminal courts. The U.S. Constitution mandates a presumption of openness in civilian courts — trials are open to the public, as are court filings, with exceptions for sealed documents. Anyone can walk into a county or U.S. courthouse and ask to read a case file without providing a reason.
But visibility into military trials is minimal. Court records are released only after many Freedom of Information Act requests, appeals and fees. While military trials are technically “open,” they take place on military bases, which are closed to the public.
“I can sit at my computer in New Haven (Conn.) and find out what was filed five minutes ago in a case in federal district court in Seattle,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. “But to get copies of motions filed last week in a general court-martial at Fort Lewis would take months if not years, while the Freedom of Information Act wheels ground along.”
Under military law, children are defined as “any person who has not attained the age of 16 years.”
Pentagon officials said judges and juries view these crimes as intolerable and are more likely to impose harsher prison terms. They also said military prosecutors pursue verdicts in cases civilian counterparts would never take to court.
Col. Chuck Killion said that since 2008, the Air Force has secured convictions in 199 out of 223 child-sexual-assault cases, or 89 percent.