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Senator Coons Helps Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Confront Rise in Sexual Assaults in Military

Press Release

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Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) teamed up with a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives to introduce legislation Thursday that would reform the military justice system by removing the prosecution of all crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement from the chain of command, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave.

According to the FY2012 Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) report released last week by the Defense Department, an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in FY2012, a 37 percent increase from FY2011. Another report released by the Defense Department late last month showed that more than 1 in 5 female servicemembers reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military.

"The disturbing rise in sexual assaults in our armed forces is simply unacceptable and absolutely cannot be tolerated," Senator Coons said. "The Pentagon has to do a better job of preventing these criminal acts -- and they are criminal -- and that starts with making sure that everyone who wears a uniform knows that not only is sexual abuse unacceptable, but that there will be real repercussions for it. This legislation will put people who are trained and skilled at administering justice in charge of how accusations of sexual assault are handled in our armed forces."

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 within Britain's Ministry of Defense.

The Military Justice Improvement Act also:

Codifies Secretary Hagel's proposed changes to the UCMJ'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.
The bill's bipartisan sponsors, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), and Representatives Dan Benishek (R-MI-01) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-02), and others, were joined by victims of sexual assault in the military and organizations who assist victims of Military Sexual Trauma at a press conference on Capitol Hill Thursday to announce the legislation.

"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."

"To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious, and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers. It is for their sake that the pattern of covering up, blaming the victim, and failing to provide even the most basic protections that has been all too common for far too long must end," Senator Collins said. "We must continue to work to ensure that no woman or man who joins the military is denied the justice and the protections available to civilians. Ultimately, the military's policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault must become a culture of zero tolerance to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place."

"I'm volcanic about sexual assault in our military ranks. From Tailhook to Fort Hood, sexual assault is not an isolated incident, it is a systemic and persistent problem," Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said. "It's time for real action. This legislation will help change the culture in our fighting forces. It will ensure that victims of sexual assault are not victimized again by commanders that looks the other way. Our fighting women and men in uniform need to know they have a government and leadership on their side, and that sexual assault, rape and abuse will not be tolerated."

"Last week's Pentagon report was a massive wake-up call that compels us to meaningfully re-examine how we prevent sexual assaults within the military and help victims of military sexual trauma," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "We support Senator Gillibrand's common sense proposal. IAVA will continue to work with members from both parties to strengthen our efforts to combat military sexual assaults and support victims, including tens of thousands of servicemembers who have sexual trauma claims trapped in the VA backlog."

Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said, "Commanders must no longer be permitted to interfere with victim reporting and judicial proceedings. Fifty-percent of victims report the perpetrator is of higher rank and 23% of victims' report the perpetrator is in their chain of command. The reforms put forth in this bill are crucial to protecting victims from bias and intimidation, and will give them a fighting chance to achieve justice and prevent further attacks. The authority to decide which cases go to trial, and to determine the ultimate outcome of a court-martial, must be taken out of the chain of command. Protect Our Defenders applauds Senator Gillibrand, Senator Boxer, Senator Collins and all the other elected officials that have supported this legislation for their leadership."

According to the FY2012 SAPRO report released last week by the Defense Department, an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact occurred in FY2012, a 37 percent increase from FY2011. Meanwhile, overall rates of reporting dropped from 13.5 percent in 2011 to 9.8 percent in 2012. In 2011, victims reported 3,192 out of 19,000 incidents, compared to 2012, where victims reported just 3,374 out of 26,000 incidents. While the number of perpetrators convicted of committing a sexual assault increased from 191 in 2011 to 238 in 2012, the conviction rate dropped from 1 percent in 2011 to 0.9 percent in 2012.

Of the 3,374 total reports in 2012, 2,558 reports were unrestricted, which means they were actionable. Of those unrestricted reports, 27 percent were for rape, 35 percent were for abusive and wrongful sexual contact, and 28 percent were for aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault. The remaining cases were for aggravated sexual contact, nonconsensual sodomy, indecent assault and attempts to commit those offenses.

Also according to the FY2012 SAPRO report, across the Services, 74 percent of females and 60 percent of males perceived one or more barriers to reporting sexual assault. 62 percent of victims who reported a sexual assault indicated they perceived some form of professional, social, and/or administrative retaliation.

In a separate report released late last month by the Department of Defense, the Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel for 2011 showed that more than 1 in 5 female servicemembers reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military.


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