Press Release

After Two Decades Of Pentagon Failure To Address Sexual Assault, Gillibrand Introduces Bipartisan Military Justice Reform To Finally Establish Fair Military Justice System For Survivors And Accused

Jun 4, 2015

Gillibrand’s Floor Speech Copied Below with Video Available HERE

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today announced the introduction of the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bipartisan and long overdue reform that would reverse the systemic fear of reporting and the pervasive distrust in the current adjudication process by moving the decision whether to prosecute serious crimes from the chain of command to independent and trained military prosecutors.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Gillibrand cited the Department of Defense’s own data to demonstrate the clear and ongoing failure to correct the broken justice system. According to the most recent sexual assault survey – administered in the year following incremental reforms – three in four survivors are still unwilling to report sexual assaults. The rate of retaliation against those who did report remained at 62 percent, the same rate as previous years. The DoD estimates that the overall number of sexual assaults and unwanted sexual contact for 2014 is 20,000 – an average of 52 cases each day, the same level as 2010.

Senator Gillibrand filed the measure as an amendment (SA.1578) to the National Defense Authorization Act. The full text of her remarks as prepared for delivery today on the Senate floor are copied below.

“Mr. President, I rise today to speak on my amendment, number 1578, the Military Justice Improvement Act, to ensure that the survivors of military sexual assault have access to an unbiased military judicial system.

“Last year, despite earning the support of 55 Senators – a coalition spanning the entire ideological spectrum, including both the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader – our bill to create an independent military justice system, free of the inherent bias and conflicts of interest within the chain of command, fell short of overcoming the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

“But, as we said then, we will not walk away. We will continue the fight to strengthen our military because it is our duty.

“In our oversight role, it is Congress’s responsibility to act as if the brave survivors of sexual assault are our sons, our daughters, our husbands, and our wives who are being betrayed by the greatest military on earth. We owe that to them.

“Over the last few years, Congress has forced the military to make many incremental changes to address this crisis, and after two decades of complete failure, and lip service to ‘zero tolerance’ – the military now says, essentially, ‘Trust us this time we got it.’

“They spin the data, hoping nobody will dig below the top lines because when you do the clear conclusion is that survivors still have little faith in the system, and the military has not made a dent in the problem of retaliation. 

“Even after much-lauded reforms, the estimate for 2014 is 20,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact. The same level as 2010 or an average of 52 per day.

“A much-touted reform made retaliation a crime but a sky-high 62 percent retaliation rate remains unchanged from two years ago.

“The system remains plagued with distrust and does not provide the fair and just process that survivors deserve.

“Simply put, the military has not held up to the standard posed by General Dempsey one year ago when he said, ‘We are on the clock if you will the President said to us in December, you’ve got about a year to review this thing and if we haven’t been able to demonstrate we are making a difference, you know, then we deserve to be held to the scrutiny and standard.’

“I urge my colleagues to hold the military to that standard. Enough is enough with the spin, with the excuses, and with the promises because throughout the last year, we have continued to see new evidence of how much farther we have to go to solve the problem of sexual assault in our military.

“We have a choice.

“We can keep waiting, and hoping that the reforms Congress forced upon the military will restore trust in the system, while an average of 52 new lives are shattered every day, three-quarters of whom will never come forward, because they see what happens around them, and don’t think justice is possible, because their commanders hold all the cards.

“Or we can do the right thing and act.

“We can accept a system where, according to the DOD themselves, three out of four servicewomen, and nearly half of servicemen, say sexual harassment is common or very common.

“Or we can do the right thing and act.

“We can accept a system where women who were sexually harassed were 1,400 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted that same year.

“Or we can act.

“We can accept a climate where supervisors and unit leaders were responsible for sexual harassment and gender discrimination in nearly 60 percent of all cases.

“Or we can do the right thing and act.

“My friends, it is time to provide our servicemembers with an unbiased judicial process. It is time to finally listen to the survivors who have told us over and over again, this is the reform required to instill long-lost confidence in the system.

“It is time to finally do the right thing and act because every time we look at the problem, it just seems to get worse.

“My office reviewed 107 sexual assault case files from the largest base in each service branch.

“We requested this data to understand what happens when reports are filed, how they are investigated and move forward within the military justice system. It took a year for the Pentagon to reluctantly turn over the files.

“These 107 files are a snapshot of the thousands of estimated cases that occur annually. What we found was an alarming rate of assault among two survivor groups not represented in that estimated 20,000 number from DoD surveys – civilian women and military spouses.

“In fact, we found that 53 percent of the cases we reviewed were in these two categories, hidden in the shadows. According to the DoD themselves, the real scope of the problem is greater than the 20,000 estimate.

“These aren’t just numbers, these are lives being broken, who deserve a fair shot at justice.

“It should disturb everyone in this chamber that instead of hope for justice, at these four military bases, nearly half of the survivors who initially filed a report declined to move forward with the process at some point before trial.

“And, even when cases did proceed, just over 20 percent went to trial, and only 10 percent of all cases resulted in a sexual assault conviction with penalties of confinement and dishonorable discharge.

“The cases that did proceed to trial but failed to obtain a sexual assault conviction typically resulted in more lenient penalties, such as a reduction in rank or docked pay.

“And then there was the new Human Rights Watch report, which told us that servicemembers who reported a sexual assault were 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation than see their offender get convicted for a sex offense.

“Let me repeat that: a survivor who reported a sexual assault was 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation than see their offender get convicted for a sex offense. How can anyone say that is a system that a survivor can trust?

“Despite the DoD’s reported 62 percent retaliation rate, they could not find evidence of a single serious disciplinary action against anyone for retaliation. Not one. That borders on the impossible. Without independent review, we are actually relying on a commander to charge himself for retaliation. It doesn’t make sense.

“According to the DoD’s own SAPRO report, retaliation remains at 62 percent for women. Over one-third experienced administrative action, and 40 percent faced other forms of professional retaliation.

“DoD admits they have made ‘zero progress’ since 2012.

“The carefully crafted and widely bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act is designed to reverse the systemic fear that survivors of military sexual assault describe, in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them, due to the bias and inherent conflicts of interest posed by the military chain of command’s current sole decision-making power over whether cases move forward to a trial. 

“This reform will protect both the victim and the accused. We don’t want to see an innocent person convicted any more than we want to see a guilty person go free.

“Due process, professionalism, and equal opportunity to justice is how we restore trust in a broken system.

“It is time to move the sole decision-making power over whether serious crimes akin to felony go to trial from the chain of command – into the hands of non-biased, professionally trained, military prosecutors – where it belongs.

“And we do this while leaving military crimes to the chain of command.

“In fact, the decision whether to prosecute the vast majority of crimes – including 37 serious crimes uniquely military in nature, plus all crimes punishable by less than one year of confinement, would remain within the chain of command.

“The brave men and women we send to war to keep us safe deserve nothing less than a justice system equal to their sacrifice. We owe that to them.

“Thank you, and I yield the floor.”