Army officials have requested that Army installations re-examine their handling of juvenile crime “as situations arise” in the wake of an American-Statesman investigation that found wide jurisdictional gaps at Fort Hood that had allowed serious cases of sexual assault to go unprosecuted.
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson told the Statesman on Tuesday that installations have been asked to review their “jurisdictional schemes” to ensure “appropriate coverage of juvenile misconduct.”
Fort Hood, along with numerous other military installations, sits in an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction, meaning prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Waco are charged with prosecuting juvenile crime on the post. But federal courts are ill-equipped to handle juvenile cases and rarely take them on except for the most serious ones. Federal prosecutors occasionally refer cases to county authorities, but those local prosecutors aren’t required to take the cases.
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. It’s unclear how many were actually accepted by county prosecutors.
In 2012, one Army mother expressed frustration over the lack of prosecution against her teenage stepson, who admitted to molesting her son over several years. “Never could we have imagined that a crime like this could be committed against one of our children and the only one being protected would be the perpetrator,” she wrote in a letter to Fort Hood legal officials. “Had I known this was the case I never would have moved on post.”
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.
Fort Hood officials said discussions are planned with federal prosecutors and with Bell and Coryell county officials in the near future to “explore a feasible arrangement.”
“In every instance of a reported act of misconduct on Fort Hood, the paramount concern is the safety and security of all personnel on the installation,” officials said in a statement Tuesday. “To this end, Fort Hood officials will consider and utilize every available resource to ensure the safety of Fort Hood and the surrounding community.”
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. Army policy calls for commanders to give back any jurisdiction deemed “unnecessary” to state authorities.
Other installations have entered into formal agreements with local prosecutors without taking the added step of retroceding jurisdiction, though legal experts say retrocession is a better option, being less open to legal challenge.
Neither Fort Hood nor Fort Bliss in El Paso have agreements with local prosecutors.
The Army stopped short of calling for standardized agreements between military and local authorities, instead leaving the ultimate decision to individual commanders. “Each installation has unique jurisdictional issues that cannot be appropriately addressed by applying the same approach for each,” Johnson said. “(T)he local installation commander, as advised by the servicing staff judge advocate, is best situated to decide how to address juvenile misconduct, since that commander has the appropriate detailed understanding of any unique issues on the respective installation.”
Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland is currently serving abroad as the head of the coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
A retrocession agreement also would require the approval of state officials, including the governor.
“Sexual assault is a terrible crime that should never go unpunished,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott. “Gov. Abbott will consider any proposal that strengthens law enforcement at military bases in Texas.”
U.S. Rep. John Carter, the Round Rock Republican who represents parts of Fort Hood and surrounding Bell County, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn are also working with military, state and local officials on a solution.
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows said his county would be open to an agreement with Fort Hood on juvenile prosecutions, but said he would look to Fort Hood to pay for any treatment ordered for the on-post juveniles it prosecutes.
What We Reported
An American-Statesman investigation earlier this month revealed that incidents of sexual assault committed by juveniles on Fort Hood have gone unprosecuted since at least 2001. In response, area members of Congress vowed to seek a solution to the jurisdictional gap at Fort Hood and other military installations.