Press Release

After Recent Department of Defense Report Highlights Its Continued Failure to Address Crisis of Military Sexual Assault, Gillibrand Leads Bipartisan Group of Senators to Reintroduce Military Justice Improvement Act and Calls On Congress to Act

Jun 13, 2019

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, today led a bipartisan group of Senators to reintroduce the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes by moving the decision over whether to prosecute them to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors. According to the Department of Defense’s own data in this year’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) report, there were an estimated 20,500 instances of sexual assault – a massive increase over the 14,900 estimated in the previous 2016 survey. The number of women in the military who experienced sexual assault increased by 50%, from 8,600 in FY2016 to 13,000 in FY2018. In fact, by DoD’s own admission, the odds of young service women experiencing a sexual assault is one in eight, yet commanders have sent fewer cases to trial – from 588 in FY2014, to 389 in FY2016, to 307 in FY2018.

“Our nation’s military leaders have spent decades promising ‘zero tolerance’ on sexual assault, but it’s painfully clear that they’ve failed at that mission. The Pentagon, by its own admission, is out of time – and should now be out of excuses,” said Senator Gillibrand. “For years, survivor after survivor has told us the change we need to make in the military justice system to end the scourge of sexual assault in our military – the same change that some of our allies all around the world have already made: move the decision to try these crimes outside of the chain of command to trained military prosecutors. The Department of Defense has tried incremental reforms, but they clearly haven’t worked. Sexual assault is still pervasive – in fact the latest DoD numbers show that sexual assaults in the military have dramatically increased while the number of cases going to trial has gone down. None of this is acceptable. It’s long past time for Congress to step up and create accountability where the DoD has failed. That is how we will finally give our men and women in uniform a justice system that is fair, professional, and actually works.”

Five years ago, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said the military was “on the clock” to fix military sexual assault, and indicated it would be right to bring a bill back to the floor in a year if they hadn’t solved the problem. In the years since, incremental reforms have been implemented yet sexual assault in the military has remained pervasive and dramatically increased over the last two years, with many service members still having little faith in the military justice system.

The Military Justice Improvement Act would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault, which would help remove the systemic fear that survivors of military sexual assault describe in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them. This legislation would remove the sole decision-making authority over whether serious crimes are prosecuted from the military chain-of-command and give it to independent, trained military prosecutors. Uniquely military crimes, such as a soldier going AWOL, and other non-judicial and administrative remedies would stay within the chain of command.

Specifically, the Military Justice Improvement Act would do the following: 

·         Grant the authority to send criminal charges to trial (disposition authority) to designated judge advocates (military lawyers) in the rank of O-6 or higher who possess significant criminal justice experience.

·         Ensure that judge advocates vested with disposition authority would

·         Be outside the chain of command of the accused.

·         Exercise professional prosecutorial judgment when deciding whether to proceed to court martial.

·         Render decisions to proceed to trial free from conflicts of interest.

In addition to Senator Gillibrand, this legislation is cosponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Tina Smith (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

“Justice is a founding principle enshrined in the Constitution. Those who have dedicated themselves to protecting and defending the Constitution as part of the armed forces deserve justice as much as anyone else. But their fidelity has been betrayed by a system that discourages reporting of sexual assault and far too often fails to punish perpetrators. This is the fourth Congress I’ve supported this legislation. It’s time for it to become law. We owe it to the heroes who put their lives on the line in service to their country and ask for so little in return,” said Senator Grassley.

The military has failed to address the sexual assault crisis, letting victims down and harming our military’s readiness, recruitment and retention efforts. Unfortunately, far too many of our men and women in uniform do not trust they’ll get the justice they deserve if they pursue it through the current system,” said combat Veteran and Senator Tammy Duckworth. “As a former commander of an assault helicopter company, it’s become clear to me that we need to pass meaningful reforms to bring more perpetrators to justice and ensure survivors have the resources and support they need to heal and be able to resume the careers they dreamt about from the time they entered the military. I’m proud to have worked with Senator Gillibrand on her new Military Justice Improvement Act, which will help deliver justice to survivors without sacrificing military commanders’ abilities to maintain discipline within their unit at home or while deployed.”

“Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the nation, and recent data shows that incidents are increasing at an alarming rate in the military. Service members need to have confidence that if they come forward, justice will be pursued without retribution or stigma,” said Senator Shaheen. “This legislation will empower military prosecutors with the authority they need to step outside of the military chain of command’s decision-making power for the most serious crimes, helping to ensure perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes and that survivors are treated fairly and shielded from retaliation. No service member should be intimidated out of reporting an assault – I urge Leader McConnell to bring this bill up for a vote so we can protect and support our service members seeking justice.”

“I’ve been deeply moved by the courageous accounts of military sexual assault survivors whose bravery reminds us that this horrific crime is all too common. The current system for prosecuting these heinous crimes is simply inadequate, even as reported assaults have increased dramatically. We have much more work to do to ensure survivors, in and out of uniform, have access to the support they need and the fair and effective justice system they deserve. It ought to renew and reinvigorate our push to protect all of our military men and women from these horrific crimes,” said Senator Blumenthal.

“The brave men and women who serve our country should not fear retaliation from their peers and superior officers when they report sexual assault and harassment. Sexual assault in the military is a serious crime, and personal bias or conflicts of interest from their fellow service members should not prevent survivors from getting the justice they deserve,” said Senator Hirono. “The Military Justice Improvement Act would put the decision to pursue these serious crimes in the hands of trained and professional military prosecutors, and ensure that survivors of sexual assault are not victimized again when they report military crimes. This legislation takes a critical step towards changing the culture surrounding sexual assault and harassment, and I urge my colleagues to support and pass this measure.”

“Sexual harassment and assault cannot be tolerated in our society, whether it’s in the military, at home, in the executive suite, or anywhere else,” said Senator Heinrich. “We must take serious steps to address this issue head on. This legislation that Senator Gillibrand has tirelessly pursued since I came to the Senate will make our Armed Services stronger. I am proud to cosponsor the Military Justice Improvement Act to create a military justice system that holds perpetrators accountable and cultivate a safer, more respectful environment for our servicemembers.”

“The current military justice system is failing servicemembers who have experienced sexual assault crimes,” said Senator Warren. “Servicemembers have had enough of the same vague commitments – it’s time for real structural change to ensure justice for survivors.”

“The stark reality is that far too many sexual assault victims serving in the military claim to have faced some sort of retaliation for reporting the crime. It’s obvious the current justice system is not protecting members of the military that fall victim to these heinous crimes,” said Senator Murkowski. “In the unfortunate event that a serviceman or servicewoman falls victim to sexual assault or sexual harassment, they must have the opportunity to seek justice in a fair and unbiased environment. I am proud to join my colleagues in support of legislation that protects the rights of military sexual assault survivors by requiring military professionals outside of the victim’s chain of command to make the decisions regarding their case. Every victim deserves justice and ability to speak up – we need to ensure these terrible crimes are not swept under the rug.”

“Every American deserves a fair justice system. Yet we still have military sexual assault and harassment reports that are not properly investigated, and in many cases survivors are reprimanded for speaking out,” said Senator Merkley. “It’s past time for Congress to pass this bipartisan legislation so we can make critical improvements to the process under which these cases are reviewed. These brave Americans serve their country, and we must do everything we can to ensure they do so with safety and accountability.”

“Too many sexual assault victims in the military remain silent because they do not trust the military justice system to hold their perpetrators accountable and protect them from retaliation,” said Senator Coons. “The failure of our military to prevent sexual assault remains unacceptable.  I support this carefully crafted legislation because we need to remove any appearance of bias from the ways in which accusations of sexual assault are handled in our armed forces.  This legislation will help ensure victims have the confidence to come forward to report crimes.  I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass this important legislation.”

“Service members who’ve been victims of sexual assault should not have to fear retaliation for bravely coming forward and seeking justice,” said Senator Menendez“It’s clear that we need to do more to ensure that our military justice system is both providing protection and fairness that survivors deserve, and is holding the perpetrators who’ve committed these violent crimes accountable for their actions.”  

“As a former prosecutor, I know how important it is to have strong policies in place to combat sexual assault, and the military is no exception. Our legislation will improve the system for reporting and prosecuting sexual assault in the military and support survivors throughout the process. Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line fighting for our country—we must make sure each one of them has trust and respect within their own ranks,” said Senator Klobuchar. 

“I am grateful to the victims who have had the bravery to come forward, but there are still far too many service members who feel they cannot report an assault without adverse consequences to their careers,” said Senator Brown. “We need to do everything we can to root out this problem, starting with a military justice system that holds perpetrators accountable and creates a safer environment for our nation’s heroes.”

“Women and men who honorably serve our nation deserve our utmost respect, and part of our responsibility to look out for them means ensuring there are systems in place to get justice for victims of sexual assault in the military,” said Senator Smith. “We owe it to those who make sacrifices for our nation to have systems in place so victims do not live in fear of coming forward, and they know there is a system of justice in place that will work for them.”

“The Military justice Improvement Act is a critical step toward creating a safer environment and more reliable system of accountability and survivor services for military survivors of sexual assault. I stand ready to work with my colleagues in the Senate to seek justice for survivors,” said Senator Casey

“Sexual assault is a horrific wrong, and, tragically, it has proven far too pervasive in our armed forces,” said Senator Cruz. “We have a solemn obligation to protect the young women and men in the military, and to keep all of them safe from sexual violence.  Decades of experience have shown that, under the status quo, far too many victims of assault are reluctant to come forward because they fear their attackers will not be prosecuted. That’s why, for many years, I’ve joined with Sen. Gillibrand to help lead this bipartisan effort to ensure sexual assault cases are handled by career military prosecutors — to honor our commitment to every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine — and its why I’m proud to do so again.”

“We must speak the truth that past efforts to protect our men and women in uniform from sexual assault have failed, and we must change the system,” said Senator Harris. “As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen up close how painful it can be for survivors to come forward with an accusation—we owe them a fair and impartial opportunity to seek justice. I’m proud to be a part of this bipartisan effort to reform the military justice system to better protect all service members and support survivors.”

“Our men and women who serve need the confidence that the justice system is pursuing justice.  While our military is full of many great leaders who are working hard to change military culture, the fact remains that in our country justice is expected to be an impartial process administered by professionals outside of the chain of command.  The victims, and those accused, deserve that system,” said Senator Leahy. 

“Protect Our Defenders proudly supports the Military Justice Improvement Act. Despite decades of promises from military leadership to end the scourge of military sexual assault, the crisis has only worsened,” said Don Christensen, President of Protect Our Defenders. “While the rate of sexual assault continues to climb, prosecutions under the commander controlled system have plummeted. Quite simply, the status quo has failed. By empowering military prosecutors, MJIA will bring accountability for those who commit these heinous crimes and justice for survivors.”

“The lack of substantive progress in addressing the pervasiveness of sexual assault in our nation’s military is unacceptable and a matter that requires immediate and decisive redress. The failure to protect survivors and ebb these unspeakable crimes reflect poorly on our military and erodes the public confidence in the institution,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “IAVA’s 2019 membership survey revealed a shocking 61% of veterans believed the DoD is not effectively addressing this crisis. We commend Senator Gillibrand’s long-standing commitment to this critical issue.”

“At SWAN we hear from and work with survivors on a daily basis. Their stories are always similar. If they decide to come forward and report they are generally not believed; they are seen as creating a problem where none existed before and they almost always suffer retaliation. They consistently tell us that their commanders failed them in profound ways,” said Dr. Ellen Haring, Colonel, CEO of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), US Army (retired). “As a former Commander I can tell you that I would not want to have to decide if or when to move forward with the investigation of a sex crime because I know that  my knowledge and expertise in this area is limited and that any JAG officer assigned to my command as an adviser would be a generalist. Furthermore, there are simply too many possible conflicts of interest for Commanders to be the best decision makers in sex crime cases not to mention the fact that there are Commanders themselves who have been perpetrators.”

Emily Martin, Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center said, “Women join the military to serve and protect their country—not to be sexually assaulted. But it’s a cruel reality that far too many women in the military are sexually assaulted on the job. And for the one in three who reports their abuse, little is done to stop it and they face routine retaliation by their commander and cohorts for speaking up. Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act of 2019 would attack the scourge of military sexual violence by removing prosecution authority over sexual assault from commanders. This inherent conflict of interest that shields perpetrators from facing the consequences of their abuse must end.”

“Inaction on MJIA leaves military commanders trapped in an impossible position. In my Marine Corps service, I witnessed first hand how the actions of my commander in the aftermath of a sexual assault tore apart cohesion, trust, and discipline within my unit. We need to place these decisions in the hands of expert prosecutors, allowing commanders to focus on their mission, where their expertise lies. The status quo is unsustainable, and there can be no more excuses. The more than 125,000 members of Common Defense call upon every Senator who supports justice for our troops and mission-effectiveness for our military to support the bi-partisan Military Justice Improvement Act. We see this vote as a critical, moral test of whether our representatives stand with everyday service members and veterans like us,” said Alexander McCoy, USMC Veteran Sergeant, Political Director of Common Defense.

“As not only a Military Sexual Assault Survivor, but as a former Commanding Officer of Navy War Ship, it is my belief the some crimes are so heinous, so serious, that they need to be handled by trained professional military judges.  While the military has made some strides in combating sexual assault over the last few years, it still remains a pervasive problem that is not consistently addressed adequately at the command level.  Sending these felonies to a professionalized military judicial system, out side of the victims and accused chain of command, demonstrates how seriously this crime is taken, that perpetrators will not be allowed to get away with these crimes, and re-emphasizes to countless victims that they will be taken seriously and treated with respect,” said Lieutenant Commander Erin Elliott, United States Navy.