June 12, 2018

As Sexual Assault And Harassment Remain Pervasive Throughout The Military, Gillibrand Calls For A Vote On The Bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act On The Senate Floor To Finally Address Crisis And Protect Service Members

Gillibrand Urges Congress To Pass the Bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act to Establish an Impartial, Fair, and Accountable Military Justice System

**WATCH Senator Gillibrand’s Speech on the Senate Floor HERE**

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, today took to the Senate floor to call for a vote on the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act. Gillibrand introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act as an amendment to the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

Sexual assault and harassment remain pervasive throughout the military, despite multiple reforms to the existing military justice system and assurances from top military officials that they would fix this problem. Earlier this year, a Department of Defense report on sexual assault in the military revealed that for Fiscal Year 2017, there was a 10 percent increase in reporting, but the number of cases going to trial and convictions decreased. The Military Justice Improvement Act 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. Authority over non-judicial punishments, military-specific crimes, and administrative separations would continue to reside in the hands of military commanders. Gillibrand today urged her colleagues to finally act and hold the military accountable for sexual assault against service members.

Below are Senator Gillibrand’s remarks as delivered:

Mr. President, I rise to urge my colleagues to join me in voting for a bipartisan bill, Amendment 2294, the Military Justice Improvement Act. It will fix our broken military justice system.

I believe that our service members deserve a justice system that is worthy of their sacrifice. That means one that is both professional and fair.

And I think every one of my colleagues in this chamber agree that this is a priority no matter where you are from, no matter your background. Some of my newer colleagues may be less familiar with this issue, so I’m going to tell you what I’m talking about.

We all deeply revere our service members, which means it’s not easy to talk about problems in an institution that we treasure so greatly in this country.

But the fact is the military has a problem with sexual assault.

It is pervasive. It is destroying lives. And it’s been going on for years.

Listen to these most disturbing numbers.

Since we first introduced this bill five years ago, the number of cases that commanders have moved forward has decreased, despite an increased number in reports.

In Fiscal Year 2013, 484 cases proceeded to trial, and in Fiscal Year 2017, only 406 cases proceeded to trial.

It is estimated that there were close to 15,000 cases of military sexual assault in 2016.

That doesn't even include spouses and civilians in that estimate, it’s just an estimate of service members.

In a survey of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, and supported by the Department of Defense’s own data, seven-out-of-ten military sexual assault survivors have said that they experienced retaliation or other negative behaviors because they reported the crime.

And 14 percent of survivors have declined to even participate in the justice process after reporting.

That’s how little confidence they have in this current system.

And this is after years – years – of our committee and working with the Defense Department to fix this problem.

I think we’ve passed every small ball, incremental reform anybody is willing to agree on, and it hasn’t made the difference.   

It’s even after every Secretary of Defense since Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense who have said “zero tolerance” for sexual assault in the military.  

Almost nothing has changed. Listen to these stories.

In one case, a woman was raped by a service member.

She went to the hospital, she told her friend, and an investigation was started.

During the investigation, two more victims came forward to tell their stories who had said they were raped by the very same service member.

The military investigative team, the military police, recommended the case proceed to a court-martial.

But because of the way our military justice system works today, a military commander was in charge of the case, not a trained military prosecutor, and that commander chose to just discharge the perpetrator. Just send them to the civilian world with no trial, no court martial, no record.

Not only were those service members, who were violently assaulted, denied justice, but a serial predator was also released into the general public.

Mr. President, Mr. President, that is not right.

Or listen to another case of a former Marine who was working as an Air Force civilian.

She’s from a military family. Army, Navy veterans, proud to serve. Loved the support, the camaraderie.

But she was abused by her own immediate commander, who had direct power over her in the chain of command.

She tried to seek justice.

But once again, a military commander was in charge of the case, not a trained military prosecutor who understands these kinds of cases and understands criminal justice.

And despite overwhelming evidence, including text messages, physical evidence, eyewitnesses, the perpetrator was allowed to retire – without any financial penalty, without any charges, and with a full military pension.

My office hears all the time from women and men who have been raped in the military, who have been abused, who have been stalked, who have been retaliated against.

It is an epidemic and it is not improving.

Listen to the most recent headlines:

From USA Today, quote: “Marine Corps general fired for calling sexual harassment claims ‘fake news.’”

From the Navy Times, quote: “Officer accused of patronizing prostitutes worked in sex assault prevention office while awaiting court-martial.”

From Stars and Stripes, quote: “Fort Benning drill sergeants suspended amid sexual assault allegations.”

USA Today: “Bad Santa: Navy’s top admiral kept spokesman after boozy party, sexual predator warning.”

And another, from the same paper, quote: “Senior military officials sanctioned for more than 500 cases of serious misconduct.”

And from the AP, quote: “Pentagon misled lawmakers on military sexual assault cases.”

These are just the recent headlines. There is a pattern here. Our military justice system is broken, and the Pentagon is not being forthright about this problem.

But Congress, Mr. President, Congress is still hesitating.

Congress still refusing to put trained military prosecutors in charge of these cases.

This has to end.

Congress has to step in, it has to do its job. Our job is to provide oversight and accountability over the administration, over the Department of Defense on this very issue.

We have the responsibility to ensure that military justice is possible for survivors in the military. And it shouldn’t matter if the perpetrator has skills that the commander needs, it shouldn't matter if he happens to be buddies with the commander. What should matter is whether there is evidence that a serious crime has been committed. That should be the determining factor of whether these cases get put forward to trial. 

So we need to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act.

This legislation is as bipartisan as it gets – it is supported by conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike, and plenty in between.

It has the support of some of the biggest veteran’s organizations, women’s organizations, legal organizations.

And there’s a good reason for this: Because this bipartisan bill would ensure that survivors of these heinous crimes, and the alleged perpetrators of these crimes, are both afforded due process. The due process that they are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution.

This bill in no way impedes a commander’s ability to take action for military-specific crimes, like when a soldier goes AWOL.

What it would do, is take the prosecution of sexual assault and other serious crimes, serious violent felonies, out of the chain of command – and it would put it in the hands of a trained military prosecutor who actually understands how to deal with serious crimes.

This would allow our survivors, men and women who sacrifice everything for this country, the basic right to civil liberties and justice.

And this bill would also professionalize the military. It would make sure that all people – men, women, black, white, gay, straight – that every service member are not subjected to biased judgements and actually have the benefit of trained prosecutors looking at the evidence.

Sadly, according to a report that came out recently, in all four of the services – in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps – black service members are more likely to be court-martialed than white service members.

This is unacceptable, and this bill could help alleviate some of the unfairness in the current system, by having trained prosecutors make those judgements based solely on evidence.

Our Commanders have a tough-enough job defending our country.

So we should let these trained prosecutors do their job, make the right decisions based on evidence alone.

We can only make this change if we pass this amendment.

So I urge all of our colleagues, Mr. President, to look at this bill, look at it anew, look at the fact that we have not improved our rate of cases actually going to court martial and our rate of conviction, even though more are reporting. It is a huge problem and I promise you, every year the excuse is, “Let the reforms take more time to work.”

Okay, well, it's been five years since this has had a spotlight on it and if commanders cannot seem to put more cases towards court martial and can’t result in more convictions, we are not getting it right.

We are failing the men and women who will die for this country.

I yield the floor.