A bipartisan group of more than 30 senators is sponsoring a bill that would overhaul military justice by taking the decision to prosecute serious crimes, including sexual assault, away from commanders and placing it with independent prosecutors.
The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, unveiled April 29, comes as the Pentagon is reviewing how it handles sexual assault. The legislation would “take critical steps to create a more professional and transparent military justice system for serious crimes—including rape and sexual assault, murder, manslaughter, child endangerment, child pornography, and negligent homicide,” according to a statement from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
“Securing justice for survivors of sexual assault and abuse is critical,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a statement. “It’s utterly unacceptable that so many of those who serve our country in uniform have dealt with a system that’s broken. For eight years, Sen. Gillibrand and I have pushed for real change in the military justice system to ensure there can be real accountability. I hope this is finally the year we can deliver that change.”
Specifically, the bill would:
- Move the decision on whether to prosecute serious crimes to independent military prosecutors, though misdemeanors and “uniquely military crimes” will stay in the chain of command.
- Require the Defense Department to support criminal investigators and military prosecutors “through the development of unique skills” needed in sexual assault and domestic violence cases.
- Require the Defense Secretary to survey and improve physical security at bases, including locks and security cameras, “to increase safety in lodging and living spaces.”
- Increase and improve training and education on military sexual assault.
“As a former combat commander and a survivor of sexual assault, I understand the traumatic experiences too many of our service members have faced,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in the release. “Sexual assault has no place in our military—or anywhere else—and it’s far past time we take more steps toward preventing and reducing these heart-wrenching crimes.”
One in 16 military women in 2018 reported being groped, raped, or sexually assaulted in other ways. There were almost 21,000 instances of reported sexual assault that year, up from 14,900 two years before, according to Gillibrand’s office.
In addition to dozens of senators from both parties, the bill has been endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, Protect Our Defenders, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, SWAN, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Common Defense, and the Veterans Recovery Project.
While some on Capitol Hill have pushed for years to take sexual assault out of the chain of command, the Pentagon has historically opposed those efforts. However, the DOD’s ongoing Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault recently recommended making the change, Defense One reported.