TOKYO — At US military bases in Japan, most servicemembers found culpable in sex crimes in recent years did not go to prison, according to internal Department of Defense documents.
Instead, in a review of hundreds of cases filed in America’s largest overseas military installation, offenders were fined, demoted, restricted to their bases or removed from the military.
In about 30 cases, a letter of reprimand was the only punishment.
More than 1,000 records, obtained by the Associated Press using the Freedom of Information Act, give a disturbing view of how senior US officers prosecute and punish troops accused of sex crimes. Seemingly strong cases were reduced to lesser charges. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped charges instead.
Even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed, the suspect was unlikely to serve time. Of 244 service members whose punishments were detailed in the records, only a third of them were jailed.
The analysis of the reported sex crimes, filed between 2005 and early 2013, shows a pattern of random and inconsistent judgments:
■ The Marines were far more likely than other branches to send offenders to prison, with 53 prison sentences out of 270 cases. By contrast, of the Navy’s 203 cases, more than 70 were court-martialed or punished in some way. Only 15 were sentenced to time behind bars.
■ The Air Force was the most lenient. Of 124 sex crimes, the only punishment for 21 offenders was a letter of reprimand.
■ Victims increasingly declined to cooperate with investigators or recanted, a sign they may have been losing confidence in the system. In 2006, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which handles the Navy and Marine Corps, reported 13 such cases; in 2012, it was 28.
In two cases, both adjudicated by the First Marine Aircraft Wing, the accusers said they were sexually abused after nights of heavy drinking, and both had some evidence to support their cases. One suspect was sentenced to six years in prison, but the other was confined to his base for 30 days instead of getting jail time.
Taken together, the cases illustrate how far military leaders have to go to reverse a spiraling number of sexual assault reports. The records also may buttress the argument of members of Congress who are pushing to strip senior officers of their authority to decide whether serious crimes, including sexual assault cases, go to trial.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who leads the Senate Armed Services’ personnel subcommittee, said the records are ‘‘disturbing evidence’’ that there are commanders who refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases.
Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and other lawmakers from both political parties are pressing for further changes in the military’s legal system.