April 29, 2021

Senators Gillibrand, Grassley, Ernst, Blumenthal, Cruz, Shaheen, Kelly And Military Sexual Assault Advocates Introduce New, Bipartisan Military Justice Improvement And Increasing Prevention Act

DoD’s Most Recent Report Estimates Almost 21,000 Service Members Were Sexually Assaulted In 2018 Despite Repeated Efforts To End Scourge Of Sexual Harassment And Assault In The Military; Bipartisan Military Justice Reform Legislation Would Create Impartial, Fair, And Accountable Military Justice System For Sexual Assault And Other Serious Crimes and Provide Additional Prevention Measures; Recent Reporting Details Momentum In Congress And The Pentagon To Pass Legislation That Reforms Military Ju

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Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, alongside U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Mark Kelly (D-AZ), President of Protect Our Defenders Colonel Don Christensen, USAF (ret.), survivor Amy Marsh, and IAVA Executive Vice President Tom Porter introduced new bipartisan legislation, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. The military justice reform bill would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes by moving the decision to prosecute from the chain of command to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, and provides for several new prevention provisions such as more and better training for commanders and increased physical security measures, while ensuring that commanders still have the ability to provide strong leadership and ensure a successful command climate. 

“Sexual assault in our military is an epidemic and it’s clear that the current system is not working for survivors. Despite repeated efforts to protect our women and men in uniform rates of harassment and assault continue to rise while prosecutions decline. Congress has a solemn responsibility to protect our service members, and right now we have more work to do,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act takes important, commonsense steps to deliver justice for survivors of serious crimes and prevent sexual assault in our armed forces. I am proud to introduce this new, bipartisan legislation and I thank all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for being my partners in this fight. With strong support in Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House this is a defining moment for passage and I’m confident we can get it done.”

“Securing justice for survivors of sexual assault and abuse is critical. It’s utterly unacceptable that so many of those who serve our country in uniform have dealt with a system that’s broken. For eight years, Sen. Gillibrand and I have pushed for real change in the military justice system to ensure there can be real accountability. I hope this is finally the year we can deliver that change,” said Senator Grassley.

“As a former combat commander and a survivor of sexual assault, I understand the traumatic experiences too many of our service members have faced. Sexual assault has no place in our military—or anywhere else—and it’s far past time we take more steps toward preventing and reducing these heart-wrenching crimes. This new, bipartisan bill—the result of Republicans and Democrats working together—will bolster prevention programs, education, and training; improve how we hold perpetrators accountable while ensuring commanders still have visibility of what’s going on in their unit; and equip military prosecutors with the skills necessary to handle sexual and domestic violence cases. The goal has been and always will be to strengthen our fighting force and ensure all service members are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Senator Ernst.

“Our bipartisan bill would institute immediate, necessary changes to how the military handles sexual assault. Perhaps most critically, it includes a dramatic increase in resources for preventing these assaults from ever happening in the first place. The truth hurts, but the reality is that military sexual assaults are not isolated incidents – a few bad apples – but a symptom of deeply ingrained cultural and institutional failures. For too long, the scourge of military sexual assault has been swept under the rug and dismissed with plans and promises. We need action now,” said Senator Blumenthal.

“It is imperative that victims of sexual assault and harassment who serve in our Armed Services can step forward in the pursuit of justice without fear of not be taken seriously or fear of retaliation. Sen. Gillibrand and I have long fought for this legislation to ensure these cases are handled by independent career military prosecutors. I once again urge my colleagues in the Senate to swiftly pass this bipartisan bill to address these issues,” said Senator Cruz.

“Recent data confirms that sexual assault in the military continues to surge and efforts to seek justice for survivors still faces bureaucratic roadblocks. It is long overdue that Congress take action to bring about the institutional change that is needed to protect those who serve our country,” said Senator Shaheen. “I’m glad to join Senator Gillibrand to introduce the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act to make urgently needed and overdue reforms to combat sexual harassment and assault in the military. This bill would redirect the decision to try these crimes away from the military chain of command to independent, trained and impartial prosecutors. It would also increase prevention, training and education measures to combat sexual assault, among other action items. This year we mourned the brutal murder of U.S. Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, who was sexually harassed and assaulted before her death. This tragic event further underscores the need for a robust response. Today, Congress is responding. I urge lawmakers to join us in this effort to keep our services members safe, help survivors seek justice and end this toxic culture.”

“We owe it to our service members to address head on the problem of sexual assault in the military. Every service member should expect to be treated with respect by their peers, by their commanding officers, and, should it be necessary, by the military justice system. These bipartisan reforms will move us closer to making that a reality,” said Senator Kelly. 

“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,” Senator Duckworth said. “As a former commander of an assault helicopter company, it’s become clear to me that we need to pass meaningful reforms to hold more perpetrators accountable 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 join Senators Gillibrand and Ernst in introducing this bipartisan bill, which would help deliver justice to survivors—without sacrificing military commanders’ abilities to maintain discipline within their unit at home or while deployed—while also helping to prevent these despicable crimes from occurring in the first place.”

“While they are in service of our nation, no service member should ever live in fear of being attacked by someone they are training or fighting with or feel as though they cannot report sexual assault incidents without facing retaliation,” said Senator Capito. “I am proud to join this bipartisan group of senators to introduce this legislation that takes clear steps to provide members of the military with a peace of mind by moving sexual assault cases outside of the chain of command to trained prosecutions. In addition, this legislation will train and educate service members on sexual assault and will make security improvements on bases, which will help ensure the safety of those in uniform. With West Virginia's strong history of military service, caring for America's service members could not be more important, and the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act is a step in the right direction in doing so.”

“Our men and women in uniform sacrifice every day to keep us safe, often working in some pretty unsafe places around the world. The last thing they should be worrying about is whether they’re unsafe within their ranks, and they certainly shouldn’t have to fear retaliation if they report a sexual assault. This bill is what happens when a bipartisan group of senators come together to get something done. I’m thankful that Senator Gillibrand and Senator Ernst have led the charge, and I’m glad to join my colleagues in support of this bill that will help improve the way the military handles sexual assaults so survivors can get the justice they deserve,” said Senator Tommy Tuberville.

“Today is a historic day for survivors of military sexual assault and harassment. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Senator Gillibrand, survivors, and President Biden’s support, fundamental reform of the military justice system will become reality. I believe Senator Ernst’s support will prove to be the tipping point in the battle for reform, and her focus on prevention has strengthened this vital legislation. For years, senior military leaders have acknowledged that sexual assault and harassment are a cancer ripping at the fabric of the force. The passage of this critical legislation will increase our military’s readiness and ability to bring the fight to the enemy. And will finally provide a real opportunity for justice for survivors,” said Colonel Don Christensen.

"Well I’m glad to say today that I don’t have to be silent anymore. The Military Justice Improvement and Increased Prevention Act will help ensure that no more survivors or military families will have to go through what I went through. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and events like today shine bright on the scourge of military sexual assault," said Amy Marsh, survivor.

"We are very optimistic in light of all the years of hard work by Sen. Gillibrand to gather new bipartisan support for this critical reform for the DoD," said IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler"The status quo with our military chain of command's response to military sexual assault is not working and this continuing threat to our military requires this commonsense solution to protect our service members."

Senator Gillibrand first introduced the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act in 2013 and for years, has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Senator Chuck Grassley to pass it. However, since the initial introduction, unrestricted reports of sexual assaults in the military have doubled, yet the rate of prosecution and conviction has been halved. One in 16 women in the military reported being groped, raped, or otherwise sexually assaulted in 2018, the most recent year data has been published by the Department of Defense (DoD). DoD data also show there were nearly 21,000 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. 

Recent reporting details the critical shift in Congress and the Pentagon to finally pass legislation that delivers major, long-overdue changes in military laws that have prevented justice. Military justice experts agree that the decision to prosecute from the chain of command to independent-- in a report submitted to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees they argued that a senior judge advocate office outside of the chain of command should be charged with prosecutorial discretion in felony cases. 

The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act would take critical steps to create a more professional and transparent military justice system for serious crimes — including rape and sexual assault, murder, manslaughter, child endangerment, child pornography, and negligent homicide — and address the need for sexual assault prevention that DoD has not implemented. Specifically, the legislation would: 

  • Move the decision on whether to prosecute serious crimes to independent, trained, and professional military prosecutors, while leaving misdemeanors and uniquely military crimes within the chain of command. By moving this work off of the commander’s plate, it will empower commanders to focus on mission critical activities—while specifically preserving the authorities that a commander needs to provide strong leadership and a successful command climate.
  • Ensure the Department of Defense supports criminal investigators and military prosecutors through the development of unique skills needed to properly handle investigations and cases related to sexual assault and domestic violence. 
  • Require the Secretary of Defense to survey and improve the physical security of military installations – including locks, security cameras, and other passive security measures – to increase safety in lodging and living spaces for service members. 
  • Increase, and improve training and education on military sexual assault throughout our armed services. This training would help shift the culture in the military and ensure that the armed services can enforce a no-tolerance zone for sexual assault and other grievous crimes.

The legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Angus King (I-ME), Michael Braun (R-IN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Rand Paul (R-KY), Chris Coons (D-DE), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT),Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Gary C. Peters (D-MI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL).

The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act is endorsed by VFW, IAVA, Vietnam Veterans of America, Protect our Defenders, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, SWAN, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), Common Defense, Veterans Recovery Project.