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“Twenty thousand service members experience sexual assault every year” while “only a tiny fraction of those end up with any kind of action at all in the military justice system.” Lynn Rosenthal, director of the DoD Independent Review Commission, recently offered this observation at a press conference while summarizing the findings reflected in the commission’s report. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand indicated in a recent blog post that “an estimated 20,500 service members are sexually assaulted every year” to make the case that there “is an epidemic of sexual assault in the military and the current military justice system has proven incapable of addressing it.” Likewise, General Mark Milley, currently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently observed, “If we had 20,000 casualties in Afghanistan last year or 20,000 casualties in Iraq, we'd be taking some pretty radical actions to correct that.”

The assertion that an estimated 20,000 U.S. military service members are sexually assaulted each year has become a common refrain in contemporary discourse. Indeed, the estimated prevalence data have long been at the center of the movement to divest commanders of the authority to initiate criminal charges and refer offenses to court-martial. Whence is this estimate of 20,000 annual sexual assaults drawn, and how effective is it as a measure of the performance of the commander-centric U.S. military justice system?

This essay conducts a detailed assessment of the claim that an estimated 20,000 service members are sexually assaulted each year. The source of the assertion, a biennial survey that was last conducted by the DoD Office of People Analytics in 2018, is identified along with prior iterations of the survey. With the source identified, the essay examines several limitations that support the conclusions that the “estimate” is not an accurate approximation for actual sexual assault offenses and that these central prevalence data are not an effective measure of the performance of the U.S. military justice system. After examining these factors in detail, the essay concludes by considering the landscape of the debate regarding commander disposition authority when the prevalence data at the center of the reform movement are put into proper context.

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Sexual assault in the military, Military justice reform