Everyday, the wheels of justice spin thousands of times throughout the country. We have a machine set to process the masses and the public largely has no idea what has happened. Cases are minimized to packaged arguments by counsel for each side, and sentences are delivered through formulas. Is it justice?
‘Military Justice’ is Different
The day we signed our contracts and went to boot camp, our lives changed. The military expects no less than full commitment to the mission, war, and sacrifice necessary to win. The sentiment is admirable and the patriotism of our youth in uniform that are ready to give everything for our country is even more inspiring. However, the strength our country gains through this dedication is the very source of injustice in the military justice system.
You see, when a soldier is accused of a crime, his whole life changes. These heroes identify themselves through the uniform they wear. Hundreds or thousands of miles away from their home towns, when accusations (even if true) are leveled, everything they have totally committed themselves to is now belittling them.
The command they were ready to die for is now reading the charges. The pride of their work has been stripped away and they sit in the back office — the laughing stock of everyone they fought along side of. The humiliation at work is no match, though, to the humiliation at home. Every night, trying to face the family that has sacrificed more than any civilian could ever know. Trying to explain how it will all be taken away. Trying to come to terms with what life will be like when they are run out of the military, even if they’re found not-guilty. Trying desperately to wake from the nightmare.
No commander, no supervisor understands the pain. Despite the regret, despair, and hopelessness this soldier feels, command focuses on how to “win”. It becomes a game for the officers in charge. From collecting every instance the soldier reported 30 seconds late, to online training that went uncompleted — the officers in charge build their case. Whether it’s to just hurry-up and see the soldier out the door with a discharge (and a serious loss of the benefits that they earned), to a court-martial with trumped up charges to secure a big enough sentence for the JAG to get his next ribbon.
The UCMJ is created to give the military the power to ensure good order and discipline in the context of its unique needs apart from civilian criminal systems. In WWII there were approximately 2 million UCMJ actions brought against the total 6 million that served. But it was a different code back then. You took your punishment and were back on the front lines later that day. Back then, a bar fight didn’t end a 15 year career. Today, there are laws that will prevent you from ever carrying a firearm or returning to battle for the same misconduct.
Now the idea is a pound of flesh. Each service is guilty of outrageous efforts to politicize and prosecute cases without a fair review of the facts and consideration of the sacrifices of the soldier. In the Air Force, plea deals have essentially been banned by the prosecutor’s highest general. Instead, opting to give young lawyers more experience in the courtroom. In all of the services, JAGs take cases to court-martial that local civilian prosecutors declined to prosecute for a lack of evidence — and they get convictions! It’s touted as a win by command, but if a local prosecutor thought there was reasonable doubt, why are we even asking a jury to decide?
It’s time to return the UCMJ to it’s roots. A tool for swift justice in unique military circumstances. But just as importantly, there needs to be unbiased, measured and fair consideration at every stage. Blindly “letting the jury decide” is not the answer. Too often, a soldier is driven to suicide, self destructive behavior, or mental collapse by the time the jury ever enters the courtroom. Why? Because the system spiraled so fast and out of control for far too long. When you take these men and women hundreds and thousands of miles from the comfort of their real home and conspire to devastate their lives in every way the UCMJ imagines, hope is impossible. Impossible even for those that found hope driving through IED fields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The current trend is to reward commanders that stay out of the spotlight of military justice. This means ridding units of “trouble” through heavy hands and gross intimidation. At the highest level, careers are decided on “the response to military justice.” [read: getting sexual assault convictions]. Commanders are not promoted for their measured, fair, and reasonable response to misconduct. Commanders aren’t rewarded for retaining a hero that made a bad decision one night. Instead, they are forced by the JAGs to stand before the other commanders and explain themselves for their disciplinary decisions (it’s called Status of Discipline meetings). Most services require it every quarter, and it’s really an effort to shame the light-handed commanders and get them in-line.
The civilian criminal system in America is certainly not perfect, but it’s far more consistent and predictable than the military. As we start to trim the services, let’s start with the fat. We don’t need thousands of JAGs and investigators to do the jobs local prosecutors and cops do every day. For those cases that belong under the UCMJ, let’s create a system of predictable and reasonable results.
Stay tuned to learn more about how we can find justice.