By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — Signaling their disapproval of the state of sexual-assault prevention and prosecution in the military, lawmakers approved legislation containing more than 30 provisions or reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice aimed at addressing sexual assault in the military.
Military leadership said they welcomed the new initiatives.
“They provide much-needed authorities that will help strengthen our sexual-assault prevention and response efforts, and we are committed to implementing them effectively and without delay,” said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Contained in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the changes include:
- Stripping commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial
- Prohibiting commanders from reducing guilty findings to guilty of a lesser offense
- Establishing minimum sentencing guidelines for when servicemembers are found guilty of sexual assault related offenses
- Requiring that sexual-harassment complaints be permanently noted on a servicemember’s record and that any new commander review that history
- Allowing victims of sexual assault to apply for a permanent change of station or unit transfer
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Still, President Barack Obama and lawmakers have indicated that more reforms could be on the way. Following the passage of the NDAA, Obama instructed Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin E. Dempsey to continue “to make substantial improvements with respect to sexual-assault prevention and response, including to the military justice system.” He also called for a full-scale review of their progress, by Dec. 1, 2014.
“If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave servicemembers who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world,” Obama said.
Lawmakers, such as Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) also vowed that more changes would be sought. “This is a multifaceted challenge, and we will continue to pursue meaningful and substantial reform aimed at eradicating sexual assault in the military,” Tsongas said in a written statement.
The new sexual assault laws come after months of increased attention on the issue by lawmakers. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) had warned last year that combating sexual assault would be a cornerstone of NDAA legislation.
“We cannot, nor will not, tolerate an enemy within. I will not be satisfied with any response to this crime that fails to hold both the perpetrator and the chain of command responsible,” he said last year as lawmakers were considering sexual assault legislation.
Concern was fueled by a DoD report last year that the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact among active duty troops increased to about 26,000 cases in 2012 compared with an earlier estimate of 19,000.
“This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need,” Hagel said at a news conference at the time the statistics were released. “That is unacceptable to me and the leaders of this institution.”
Debate continues on Capitol Hill over what further reforms are needed to help victims. One piece of legislation supported by organizations such as the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) is the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). It was not included in the NDAA, however, nor has it come to the Senate floor for a vote as expected.
The controversial bill would reassign the convening authority powers for serious crimes to an impartial military prosecutor. This change would apply to crimes that can be punished with more than one year of confinement except for crimes specific to the military, such as a failure to obey a lawful order, SWAN explained in a fact sheet.
“Putting charging decisions in the hands of experienced, impartial military prosecutors increases the likelihood decisions are made based on the law alone rather than on political pressure, internal politics, or any other factor,” the advocacy group added.
Protect Our Defenders, another organization that advocates for those who have been sexually assaulted or raped, also was pushing for congressional approval of the bill and expressed disappointment that it was not included in the 2014 NDAA.
“Instead of listening to our veterans, those who were sexual-assault victims and then subjected to retaliation by their chain of command, Congress has decided to stand with the status quo and the hollow Pentagon promises of ‘zero tolerance’ instead of including the MJIA in the 2014 NDAA,’” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, noted in a written statement.
The measure has not had strong support among Pentagon leadership or among some lawmakers who worry that taking commanders out of the legal process will undermine their authority to maintain order among the ranks.