- By Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
For decades, sexual assaults committed by juveniles at Fort Hood fell into what some former prosecutors have described as a jurisdictional black hole that stymied legal action.
A 2015 American-Statesman investigation found that 39 juvenile sexual assault allegations at the 215,000-acre Central Texas military installation between 2006 and 2012 resulted in no federal prosecutions and just a few cases sent to local county prosecutors.
“This routine failure by the federal government to prosecute these cases resulted in numerous juvenile sex offenders escaping any sort of accountability for their crimes,” an internal Fort Hood memo read. “It left just as many juvenile victims and their families without justice.”
After the report, local lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. John Carter, called for action and Fort Hood officials began a series of meetings with the U.S. attorney’s office in Waco and prosecutors in surrounding Bell and Coryell counties to create a system to fix the situation.
After coming to an agreement with both counties in 2017, officials now say they are hopeful that the formal mechanism to refer cases to local prosecutors will ensure juvenile cases on Fort Hood get prosecuted, either in the federal or county system.
With the agreements, Fort Hood joins just a small number of military installations that have formally addressed the issue of juvenile sexual assault prosecutions. A recent Associated Press investigation found at least 600 juvenile sex assault cases on military bases, many of which did not result in prosecution. In Texas, AP found 41 cases at Fort Hood since 2007 and 10 at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Deborah Critten of San Antonio, whose story was chronicled by the Statesman after neither federal nor local authorities prosecuted the boy accused of molesting her son, called the agreement a good beginning.
“I am encouraged,” she said. “They’ve come a long way from where they started. … I’m happy that they are at least admitting that there’s a problem and that there needs to (be) a solution.”
Prosecutions aren’t solely a question of justice; they can trigger services for victims and lead to treatment and rehabilitation for young offenders.
The problem lies in the layers of jurisdiction found on most military bases. While the military justice system governs active-duty soldiers on installations like Fort Hood, it has no authority over civilians, including juveniles. Federal prosecutors assume that responsibility, but the federal system is in many ways ill-equipped to handle juvenile cases.
The Fort Hood agreement notes that in some instances the federal criminal justice system “lacks the facilities, resources and expertise” to rehabilitate juveniles and that state authorities “may be better equipped to address juveniles’ needs.”
But the agreement comes with a big caveat that could hinder local prosecution: Local governments won’t receive any additional funding from Fort Hood or the federal government. The agreement acknowledges the lack of funding might prevent counties from taking all cases referred to them and says federal authorities would pick up prosecution in those instances.
Coryell County Assistant District Attorney Scott Stevens said his county’s limited budget for treating juvenile offenders would make it impossible to take every case. “If we took every juvenile offense on Fort Hood, that would definitely overrun our system,” he said. “In an ideal world, would there be more funding? Sure.”
So far, no new cases have been funneled to the counties using the new agreement, and it’s not yet clear how often that clause would be invoked, said Waco-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Frazier.
But Critten said she is worried that cases like hers might have been considered too costly: “The bigger crimes are likely the most expensive to adjudicate.”
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows said his county remained “committed to handle the cases with or without federal assistance.”
Some have called on lawmakers to provide reliable funding to state and local prosecutors. Carter, the Round Rock Republican whose district includes Fort Hood, told the Statesman he is looking at wider fixes, but he did not specifically address funding.
“I’m encouraged to see Fort Hood has come to an agreement with the respective counties, so that these cases can be properly addressed in court, and I’m currently exploring options to ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks in the future,” he said.
After the Statesman investigation in 2015, the U.S. Army requested that installations across the nation re-examine their handling of juvenile crime “as situations arise.” This week, Defense Department officials told AP reporters that prosecution of juvenile sexual assaults was “an emerging issue” that merited further review.
Following the AP investigation, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee began its own examination of the issue and several senators demanded more information from the Pentagon about juvenile sexual assault cases.
Another solution that some military and local leaders have pursued is retrocession, in which the military cedes jurisdiction of all juvenile crime to state officials. Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state gave its juvenile jurisdiction to state authorities after a high-profile case two decades ago in which a juvenile accused of rape was never prosecuted.
But retrocession remains rare and in this state is complicated by a 1981 Texas attorney general opinion that says the state must “affirmatively” accept any jurisdiction ceded by federal authorities.
Fort Hood legal officers have periodically called for a better system. In 2008, they called for a plan to “establish routine transfers of appropriate cases” to local counties. In 2012, they urged Fort Hood leaders to consider retrocession.
In 2005, a Fort Hood investigator complained about the lack of action against a 16-year-old boy accused of molesting a 5-year-old girl. “(T)his office has contacted the various appointed (prosecutors) to determine what action if any, was going to be pursued,” the investigator wrote in a letter to the U.S. attorney’s office in Waco. “As of this date, no prosecution was ever initiated.”