Update on Sexual Assault in the Military

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), along with 15 original co-sponsors, introduced the “Military Justice Improvement Act” (S. 967) this week in the wake of a recent Pentagon report indicating that an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military during FY 2012. This reflects a 37-percent increase in reported assault cases from FY 2011 and the report states that more than one in five female service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military.

The legislation would remove the decision about taking a sexual assault case to special or general court-martial completely out of the chain of command and give that discretion to experienced military prosecutors. The bill would also apply to all military crimes that are punishable by one year or more in confinement, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or being absent without leave (AWOL).

Although the legislation is receiving bi-partisan support, some legislators have expressed concerns that the measure goes too far. Rep. Michael Turner (Ohio), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, believes “It’s far too soon to take a hatchet to the judicial system. The problem is a cultural issue.” 

The legislation also seeks to:

  • Change Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) so that the convening authority may not set aside a guilty finding or change a finding to guilty of a lesser offense;
  • Provide the offices of the military chiefs of staff with the authority and discretion to establish courts, empanel juries and choose judges to hear cases; and
  • Maintain the authority of commanding officers to order non-judicial punishment for offenses not directed to trial by the prosecutors.

President Obama also met with Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Chuck Hagel and other top Pentagon officials this week to discuss sexual assault in the military. Following another report of a military sexual-assault prevention officer accused of “abusive sexual contact,” Hagel issued an emergency order to retrain and rescreen all 9,000 service members tasked with preventing sexual assault.