Officials working to fix juvenile justice gap at Fort Hood

Military, county and federal officials are taking steps to plug a jurisdictional gap at Fort Hood that had allowed numerous alleged sexual assaults committed by juveniles to go unprosecuted since at least 2001.

According to Fort Hood, a member of the post’s Staff Judge Advocate office met with U.S. Attorney’s Office officials and Bell and Coryell county prosecutors this month to discuss the handling of juvenile offenses on Fort Hood. Future meetings are planned — though not yet scheduled — to discuss the “possibility of a formalized agreement regarding criminal prosecution of juvenile offenders,” according to Fort Hood.

In November, an American-Statesman investigation revealed the prosecutorial gap at Fort Hood, which, like many military installations, sits in an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction. That means the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Waco handles most civilian crimes on Fort Hood, but federal courts are ill-equipped to handle all but the most serious juvenile crimes. Federal prosecutors can refer juvenile cases to their county counterparts, but that has been a rare occurrence at Fort Hood.

County officials expressed optimism that the discussions will lead to more regular prosecutions. Coryell County Assistant District Attorney Scott Stevens, who handles juvenile prosecutions for the county, said agencies agreed to “move from identifying needs to proposing and implementing solutions.”

Bell County Judge Jon Burrows said that once an agreement is reached, it will be brought before the county Commissioner’s Court for consideration.

Both counties encircle Fort Hood, one of the nation’s largest military installations.

An internal legal memo obtained by the Statesman detailed 39 incidents of sexual assault committed by juveniles on Fort Hood between 2006 and 2012, with just a “handful” referred for prosecution. The Statesman investigation centered on the story of a 10-year-old boy sexually abused by his 13-year-old stepbrother over a series of years. The boy’s mother spoke with the newspaper after federal and local prosecutors declined to take up the case.

Issues with juvenile prosecutions go back even further at Fort Hood. In 2005, an Army investigator complained about the lack of action against a 16-year-old boy accused of molesting a 5-year-old girl.

Bell County officials told the Temple Daily Telegram earlier this month that they had only prosecuted two Fort Hood juvenile sexual assault cases since 2005.

After the Statesman investigation, Army officials asked installations around the country to review their handling of juvenile crime.

Local members of Congress also urged Fort Hood and surrounding counties to come to an agreement. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Carter, the Round Rock Republican who represents parts of Fort Hood and surrounding Bell County, said last week that Carter hopes “not only for an expeditious solution, but more importantly, a solution that is in the best interest of justice and the communities involved.”

While the issue of sexual assault among its ranks has roiled the U.S. military and led to numerous reforms, relatively little attention has been paid to the issue of sexual assault committed by civilian teenagers on its installations.

Nationally, juveniles account for more than one-third of sex offenses against minors, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

One solution, adopted by such installations as Fort Knox in Kentucky and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, has been to relinquish jurisdiction over juveniles to local authorities through a process called retrocession. Under such a scenario, county prosecutors, who typically handle juvenile crime, assume jurisdiction instead of federal prosecutors.

At what was then Fort Lewis, officials in the 1990s surrendered jurisdiction of juvenile crime to county prosecutors after an Army wife complained that a teen who had molested her 7-year-old son was never prosecuted. Today, juvenile cases are forwarded to local prosecutors “as a matter of course,” according to Joint Base Lewis-McChord officials.

But there is little uniformity in how military installations handle the issue of juvenile prosecutions. With no centralized policy in place, jurisdiction and prosecution patterns vary widely at U.S. Army posts, according to a survey of juvenile prosecutions published in the May edition of The Army Lawyer.

Burrows has said that Bell County officials worry that assuming such jurisdiction will bring costs related to treatment for troubled youths and that the county would seek funding from Fort Hood.

According to Fort Hood, officials plan to discuss the “assumption of financial responsibility for costs associated with adjudged correctional placement and treatment programs.”

Stevens said that, because of the complexities of the jurisdictional, budgetary and logistical issues involved in finalizing a solution, “the process is expected to take some time.”

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