Congressman Mike Turner (OH-10), Co-Chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, received word from Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley that the Air Force will implement language offered by Turner in the FY12 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1540) requiring the Department of Defense (DoD) to guarantee that victims of sexual assault have access to a military or civilian lawyer. Turner was joined by his fellow Co-Chair, Niki Tsongas, in an August 10th letter expressing concern about the Air Force’s failure to implement this provision.

“It is critical that we create an environment that punishes criminals and encourages victims to come forward. Providing legal counsel is a critical step in that process and should not be further delayed,” wrote Turner and Tsongas in their letter.

Since receiving the bipartisan letter, Lt Gen. Rich Harding, the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General, engaged DoD’s General Counsel, Mr. Jeh Johnson in a discussion on authorization for broader legal services for sexual assault victims. Johnson has since concluded that the provision offered by Turner authorizes legal assistance to those victims, including attending interviews of the victim and interfacing with military prosecutors, defense counsel, and investigators.

“The lessons that we learn will inform us about how to improve the availability and delivery of legal services to victims of sexual assault. This in turn should improve victim satisfaction and cooperation…and believe it will help us strengthen or Sexual Assault Prevention program,” wrote Donley in his letter to Turner.

The Air Force’s Special Victims’ Counsel Program is a pilot program that will be applied across the Air Force. At the end of one year, the service will assess its effectiveness in providing legal assistance to victims of sexual assault.