This afternoon the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved two bills co-authored by Congresswoman Niki Tsongas that would reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice and dramatically increase and extend the services and protections provided to sexual assault survivors.
HASC agreed to include the Congresswoman's BE SAFE Act and Coast Guard STRONG Act in the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes funding and sets policy for the Department of Defense.
The FY14 NDAA is expected to be voted out of committee later this evening.
These two bipartisan, bicameral pieces of legislation were introduced by Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, Congressman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), and address the critical and widespread problem of sexual assault in the military.
Coast Guard STRONG will ensure victims of sexual assault in the USCG are granted an expedited transfer away from the geographic location of their alleged assailant.
The BE SAFE Act language removes the commander's ability to change or dismiss a conviction for any charge or specification, except in the case of minor offenses, and limits the commander's ability to change a sentencing decision. It also requires that a person found guilty of an offense of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal or dishonorable discharge.
Legislation previously authored by Reps. Turner and Tsongas put in place the mechanism to allow victims to have an expedited transfers from their unit to another unit for victims so they do not have to serve alongside their alleged perpetrator. The BE SAFE Act confirms that commanders have the option to transfer the perpetrator, instead of the victim.. The bill also eliminates the five-year statute of limitations on trial by Court-Martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child, and expanding the legal assistance services available to military sexual assault victims.
Tsongas and Turner are co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and previously co-authored the STRONG Act and were successful in getting many of its provisions passed through the 2011 and 2012 NDAA. Tsongas is the highest ranking Democratic member on the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.
Congresswoman Tsongas released the following statement.
"In recent months we have seen reports rise, commanders and supervisors abuse their authority, and officers in charge of prevention efforts allegedly commit the crimes they swore to stop. It has become painfully evident that the military is unable to solve the scourge of sexual assault independently. This is clearly a systemic problem and accountability is needed at every level, from everyone -- officer and enlisted alike.
"Congress' role is to provide the tools needed and make sure they're being used properly. A number of members have put forward proposals that aim to eradicate this crime. Even though some of us might be walking different roads, we are all moving in the same direction, toward the same goal of reducing these horrific crimes.
"I have worked closely with Representative Mike Turner, Senator Susan Collins and Senator Claire McCaskill on the BE SAFE Act and the Coast Guard STRONG act, which will take steps to correct some of the recent alarming issues that have arisen due to failures of the military justice system, as well as increase and expand support for survivors. Bicameral, bipartisan cooperation is possible and necessary if we want to enact the kind of change required to erase sexual assault from our armed services.
"The BE SAFE language continues our push to provide victims of sexual assault access to legal counsel, which is a critical step in the process of creating an environment that encourages victims to report these crimes and in bringing those responsible to justice. It makes sure that those who are convicted of sexual assault will absolutely be discharged or dismissed. And it takes away the power of commanders to throw out the jury verdicts of those who have been convicted of sexual assault.
"Coast Guard STRONG guarantees that survivors in all branches of our armed forces receive equal treatment, resources and support.
"I am encouraged by the actions of the Armed Services Committee today and I thank Chairman McKeon, Ranking Member Smith, Mr. Turner and all my colleagues for their dedication to this vital national security issue. We are moving toward changing the deep-rooted and flawed culture that has allowed these crimes to pervade our armed forces.
"Including this language is an important step, but cannot be the last. We have to get this right. I look forward to continuing to work with my House and Senate colleagues for the safety of our men and women in uniform and for the sake of national security."