U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Richard Hanna today announced a new bipartisan, Senate-House bill that would reform the military justice system by removing the chain of command from decisions regarding the prosecution of sexual assault cases by transferring that authority to experienced military prosecutors.
According to a report released last week by the Defense Department, an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in Fiscal Year 2012, a 37 percent increase from Fiscal Year 2011. Another report released by the Defense Department late last month showed that more than one in five female service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military.
The Military Justice Improvement Act would for the first time remove the decision whether to take a case to special or general court-martial completely out of the chain of command and give that discretion to experienced military prosecutors for all crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going AWOL.
Many of our allied modern militaries have reporting outside of the chain of command, such as Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway and Australia. For example, the British military has prosecutors making trial decisions for all crimes through the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA) within Britain's Ministry of Defense.
The Military Justice Improvement Act also:
* Codifies Secretary Hagel's proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice's Article 60 so that the convening authority may not (a) set aside a guilty finding or (b) change a finding of guilty to a lesser included offense. The legislation further alters Article 60 to require the convening authority to prepare a written justification for any changes made to court-martial sentences.
* Provides the offices of the military chiefs of staff with the authority and discretion to establish courts, empanel juries and choose judges to hear cases (i.e. convening authority).
* This legislation does not amend Article 15. Commanding officers will still be able to order non-judicial punishment for offenses not directed to trial by the prosecutors.
"America is home to the world's best and brightest, brave men and women who join the armed services for all the right reasons -- to serve our country, defend all that we hold sacred, and make America's military the best the world has ever known," Senator Gillibrand said. "But too often, these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not off on some far-away battlefield, but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence. Our bipartisan bill takes this issue head on by removing decision-making from the chain of command, and giving that discretion to experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience where it belongs. That's how we will achieve accountability, justice and fairness."
"No American should have to worry about justice if they are sexually assaulted," Rep. Hanna said. "More concerning than the disgustingly high number of sexual assaults charged within our Armed Services are the number of incidents that go unreported. The system is broken, and this bill is one step toward creating a safe environment for all our service members. We must ensure justice for victims. Perpetrators must be prosecuted to the highest extent of the law."
Co-sponsors of this bill include: Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chris Coons (D-DE), Al Franken (D-MN), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Representatives Dan Benishek (R-MI), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).