Better Administration of the Military's Article 15 Punishments for Minor Offenses Is Needed

FPCD-80-19: Published: Sep 2, 1980. Publicly Released: Sep 2, 1980.

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Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is intended to give military commanders a swift, efficient, and easy way to: (1) punish those committing minor offenses; (2) maintain discipline; and (3) deter misconduct. The punishments authorized for article 15 are limited and generally less severe than those that can be imposed by court-martial. Also, unlike a court-martial, an article 15 is not considered a conviction for a criminal offense. However, problems have occurred with the use, implementation, and oversight of article 15. As a result, the maximum benefits possible from its use are not being realized.

GAO found that article 15 can negatively affect service members' entire careers. The article 15 punishment often becomes a permanent part of the service members's personnel file and can lead to involuntary separation from the service with a less than honorable discharge, which can limit veterans' benefits and civilian employment opportunities. Most of the service members interviewed considered article 15 to be unfair and stated that work efficiency, morale, and career-mindedness are adversely affected by its use. However, senior enlisted personnel generally considered it fair. GAO believes that most commanders conscientiously attempt to make appropriate, fair, and effective decisions in imposing article 15, based on the unique circumstances of each case. However, GAO found that wide disparities exist within and among the services with respect to how offenses are dealt with. The article 15 punishment process involves only a minimum of legal and procedural safeguards. Once a service member accepts it, the commander imposing it has wide discretion in deciding what punishment to impose. The service members infrequently used the safeguards offered because they were unaware of their availability, did not see the benefits to be derived, and/or feared reprisals. While inconsistent punishments were a major source of dissatisfaction with article 15 recipients interviewed, few punishments were appealed.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: To help maintain discipline; encourage positive behavioral change, job performance, and career-mindedness; and increase the deterrent effect of article 15, the Secretary of Defense should: (1) establish clear goals and objectives of article 15 punishments; (2) improve guidance and information to commanders for imposing article 15; (3) direct the services to periodically evaluate the consistency and effectiveness of the quantity and type of punishments imposed to determine whether additional guidelines are needed; (4) consider greater involvement of the commander's staff judge advocate in deciding whether to impose article 15 and the appropriate punishment; and (5) establish criteria which clearly state when it is appropriate to use mitigations, remissions, set-asides, and suspensions. To help insure that service members make an informed decision and to protect the members' administrative and procedural rights, the Secretary of Defense should direct the services to: (1) improve military justice training for enlisted personnel to insure their full understanding of the article 15 punishment process; (2) standardize the type and quality of counsel provided in article 15 cases; and (3) evaluate defense counsel staffing levels to determine whether they are adequate so that advice can be made available at reasonable times and locations. The Secretary should also direct the services to develop uniform criteria on the recording and use of article 15 records. Further, the Secretary should propose to the President the following changes to the manual for Courts-Martial: (1) specify the service member's right to consult with independent counsel, define independent counsel, and define the extent of advice that will be provided to service members; and (2) make it clear that the service member's right to refuse article 15 does not expire until punishment is imposed. The manual should also specify that the service member be advised of this.

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