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Miliary Justice 101

Part 1 -- Introduction and Background


Silhouetted naval cadets marching in formation, low angle view
Paul Souders/Digital Vision/Getty Images
When one joins the United States Military, one becomes subject to a completely new justice system. While the primary purpose of the United States justice system is to dispense "justice," that is not the primary reason for the creation of a separation justice system for America's Armed Forces. The primary purpose of the Military's system is to provide the military commander with necessary tools to enforce good order and discipline. That's why, for example, it's not considered a "crime" to be late for work at your civilian job, but it is a "crime" to be late for work in the Military (violation of Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ).

The military commander has several methods available to enforce good order and discipline within the unit, ranging from mild administrative measures such as formal or informal counseling, to full-blown General Court Martials, in which a person can be sentenced to hard labor, or even executed.

Part I of this article gives a general background of the United States Military Justice System.

Other parts of this multi-part feature include:

    Part 2- Counseling, Reprimands, and Extra Training. A counseling can be formal or informal. It can also be verbal or it can be in writing. It can be positive (pat on the back) or it can be corrective.

    A reprimand or an admonition is a "chewing out." They can be verbal, or they can be written. Written reprimands and admonitions can provide a "track record," which could later be used to justify punishment under Article 15, or administrative demotions & discharges.

    Extra Training is not the same as "extra duties" imposed under Article 15. Extra duties are "punishment," extra training is not. In order to be legal, "extra training" must logically relate to the deficiency to be corrected.

    Part 3- Administrative Discharges. Administrative discharges are authorized for a variety of reasons. The characterization for an administrative discharge can be Honorable, General (Under Honorable Conditions), and Other Than Honorable.

    Part 4- Article 15. Also known as "nonjudicial punishment," or "Mast" (In the Navy/Coast Guard, and Marines). This is sort of a "mini-court martial" with the commander acting as judge and jury. It's used for relatively minor (misdemeanor) crimes under the UCMJ. The punishment authorized is limited by the rank of the commander and the rank of the accused. In most cases, a person can refuse Article 15 punishment, and demand a trial by court martial instead.

    Part 5- Self Incrimination. Civilians are protected from involuntary self-incrimination by the 5th amendment. Military personnel are also protected, via Article 31 of the UCMJ.

    Part 6- Pretrial Confinement and Pretrail Investigations. The military has no "bail" system. But, there are special rules which must be followed if a military member is confined prior to court-martial. Article 32 Pretrial Investigations are the military's version of Grand Jury hearings.

    Part 7- Court Martials. These are the "biggies." There are three types of court martials: Summary, Special, and General. A conviction by a Special or General Court may be a "felony conviction." Court Martials can award fines, reductions, "punitive discharges," and prison time (at hard labor). General Court Martials can even impose the death sentence for certain offenses.

    Part 8- Article 138 Complaints.The UCMJ provides a method for military members to file a complaint if they are "wronged" by their commanding officer. This is one of the most powerful, yet under-used tools in the military justice system, for members to assert their rights.

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