U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) today announced that they will offer the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act as an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. The Military Justice Improvement Act would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes by moving the decision over whether to prosecute them to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors.
Despite years of Congressional reforms, thousands of service members are raped and sexually assaulted every year. In many of those cases, the assailant is someone in the survivor’s own chain of command. Only a small fraction of the perpetrators are ever held accountable for their violent crimes. Last year, the Department of Defense announced a record number of sexual assaults reported by or against service members, and yet, less than 10% of cases considered for command action ever proceeded to trial. Worse yet, despite repeated efforts to stamp out the scourge of retaliation against military sexual assault survivors, the most recent Pentagon survey found that 64% of survivors say they have experienced some form of retaliation for reporting the crime. That figure is statistically unchanged from 2016.
“Despite assurances from the Pentagon and military leaders, sexual assault remains a pervasive problem across our armed forces,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Last year, the Department of Defense announced a record number of sexual assaults and yet few cases proceeded to trial—clearly the time for incremental change is over. The bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act will help ensure service members can receive justice by moving the decision of whether to prosecute serious crimes over to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, while leaving uniquely military crimes within the chain of command. Our men and women in uniform risk their lives to keep us safe and it’s long since time we gave them a justice system that is fair and professional.”
“The Military Justice Improvement Act would help ensure impartial justice and send the message that sexual assault in the military will not be tolerated. This is the fourth Congress I’ve supported this legislation. It’s time for it to become law. That’s why I’ve worked with Sen. Gillibrand to include this is as an important amendment to the NDAA. 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,” Senator Grassley said.
“Sexual assault is horrific and must never be tolerated,” Senator Cruz said.“Unfortunately, it remains an enormous problem in our armed forces, in part because, under the status quo victims are reluctant to come forward. Providing for the nation’s defense includes protecting those who protect us from sexual violence. I’m proud to join with Sen. Gillibrand on this bipartisan effort to honor the commitment of our armed forces.”
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, compromising the majority of crimes under the UCMJ, 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 Senators Gillibrand, Grassley, and Cruz, the Military Justice Improvement Act is cosponsored by Senators 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), Rand Paul (R-KY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).