Press Release

With Scandal After Scandal In The Military, Gillibrand Stands With Bipartisan Group Of Senators To Demand Congress Finally Address Crisis Of Military Sexual Assault And Protect Service Members

Nov 16, 2017

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today stood with a bipartisan group of colleagues, survivors, and advocates to re-introduce the Military Justice Improvement Act. In recent months, scandal after scandal has shown that despite years of efforts and small reforms, sexual assault and harassment remain pervasive in the military. Top officials in the military continue to assert that they alone will fix this, but little has changed.

“Congress should finally be out of excuses to continue protecting the status quo that harms our service members and protects predators,” said Senator Gillibrand. “How much longer do we need to wait for Congress to do the right thing when the facts about sexual assault in the military remain the same? It is unacceptable that Congress has allowed this utter lack of accountability and transparency to continue. The Military Justice Improvement Act would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault and remove the systemic fear that survivors of military sexual assault describe in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them. I urge all of my colleagues who want to do something to combat sexual violence in our society to join me in cosponsoring this bipartisan bill to create a justice system worthy of the sacrifice of our service members. To do less is to knowingly perpetuate a failed system.”

Repeated testimony from survivors and former commanders proves that there is widespread reluctance on the part of survivors to come forward to trial. Last year, the Department of Defense announced a record number of sexual assaults reported against service members, and the lowest conviction rates for their assailants on record, at just 9%. The most recent Pentagon survey found that nearly 6 out of 10 survivors say they have experienced some form of retaliation for reporting the crime.

On October 26th, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) published their results, which were equally troubling:

  • Only 19% of women and 33% of men think the Department of Defense is doing a good job of addressing military sexual assault. 
  • 71% of female respondents said they experienced retaliation when they reported, as did 64% of men. 
  • 46% of women and 35% of men said they would be more likely to report being assaulted if, instead of a commander, a trained military prosecutor made the decision to move forward with the case, as the Military Justice Improvement Act would do.

The bipartisan 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.

Specifically, the bill 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.
  • Judge advocates vested with disposition authority will
    • Be outside the chain of command of the accused.
    • Exercise professional prosecutorial discretion when deciding whether to proceed to court martial.
    • Render decisions to proceed to trial that are free from outside influence and binding upon the Convening Authority. 

“Our men and women in uniform serve this great country bravely every day and deserve to have a system for prosecuting sexual assault charges that is fair and secures justice for victims. It’s time for us to fix the process for victims,” said Senator Kennedy.

“We have institutionalized and protected a process that does not result for justice for victims. I continue to call for the passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act to address this injustice, and thank Senator Gillibrand for her leadership on this critical issue,” said Senator Hirono.

“The men and women who serve in our armed forces enlist to protect their fellow Americans from harm. We should do everything we can to protect them while they serve. Justice is a founding principle enshrined in the Constitution. Those who serve share a common bond with one another. That trust is betrayed by a system that discourages reporting of sexual assault and far too often fails to punish perpetrators. This is the third Congress I’ve supported legislation to improve the military justice system. Bureaucracies instinctively oppose accountability. But military readiness won’t be undermined by this long-overdue legislation. It will be strengthened. We owe this 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.

“It is an honor to work with Senator Gillibrand, who has led the fight to pass much-needed and long overdue reform to the way our military combats sexual assault. It’s clear that the status quo is not good enough and the current military justice system is not working for survivors and their families. For years on the Armed Services Committee, I have heard promises from military brass that they are going to do better, but the sobering statistics and stories show that those efforts are not working. This is a cancer on our armed forces, and we in Congress must do everything we can to protect and support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in our military and hold their assailants accountable,” said Senator Heinrich.

“Sexual assault should never be tolerated and perpetrators should be held fully accountable for their horrific, inexcusable actions. That’s why we must ensure that victims can report these crimes with confidence that there will not be any retaliation. I’m proud to join with my colleagues to introduce the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill that not only holds sexual assault offenders responsible, but also provides victims with the protection they deserve,” said Senator Heller.  

“When it comes to sexual assault in our military, words like ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘unacceptable’ are hollow if they don’t come with significant structural reforms to the military justice system. Our service members put their lives on the line every day to protect our country, and they deserve a system in which there is real accountability for sexual assault crimes,” said Senator Warren.

“Victims of rape and sexual assault in the military deserve a fair and independent system outside the chain of command to report these types of crimes. This bill must be passed to ensure all servicemen and women have an independent route to report serious crimes,” said Senator Sanders.

“The men and women in our armed forces serve with courage in defense of our freedom every single day. Their service needs to be respected by taking decisive action to address the ongoing crisis of sexual assault in the military. We know that the system is broken and it’s long past time that we fix it. The Military Justice Improvement Act will bring much needed change to the system so it works better for our brave service members,” said Senator Baldwin.

“Sexual harassment and assault are serious problems in our society and won’t go away unless we actively work to change the culture. This is particularly true in our military, where the chain of command’s decision-making process can intimidate survivors and dissuade them from reporting these types of crimes. I’m proud to support this bipartisan legislation, which will help us take an important step forward to combat sexual assault and stand up for survivors,” said Senator Shaheen.

“It’s far past time to reform the military justice system to better protect survivors, punish abusers and prevent sexual assault from occurring in the first place. Men and women in the military need to be able to trust that action will be taken without fear their careers are on the line if they report sexual assault. That’s why I’m proud to join Sen. Gillibrand in working to remove from the military chain of command the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes and place it in the hands of experienced, impartial military lawyers,” said Senator Wyden.

“Last year, the military announced a record number of sexual assaults reported against service members. That is unacceptable. The Pentagon must take greater steps to prevent sexual assault and make sure everyone who wears a uniform knows there are real repercussions for it. This bill places skilled, impartial people experienced at administering justice in charge of handling accusations of sexual assault in our armed forces. It is an important step towards reducing the prevalence of sexual assault in the military,” said Senator Coons.

“The lack of accountability that exists for perpetrators of sexual assault in the military is unacceptable. The brave women and men who put on the uniform to serve our country already face all kinds of danger during their service — they should not also have to face the threat of assault from within their own ranks,” said Senator Merkley.

“For over 25 years, the Pentagon has insisted they have a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment. Decades of scandals have disproved these claims, and the most recent data proves conclusively that the military is failing to live up to their declarations of zero tolerance. Last year, there were over 4,600 unrestricted reports of sexual assault and rape in the military – an all-time high. Even in the rare cases where survivors report, 98% of the time their assailant is not convicted. This is not zero tolerance nor is it a successful system. It is time for the Senate to finally say enough is enough and pass the Military Justice Improvement Act,” said Don Christensen, Former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force and President of Protect Our Defenders Col (ret.).

“It is unacceptable that not enough is being done to protect survivors of military sexual assault or to prevent these egregious crimes from happening in the first place. In IAVA’s most recent membership survey, only 19% of IAVA’s women veteran members and 33% of men said they think DoD is effectively addressing sexual assault. Additionally, 35% of IAVA women members and 1% of male members are survivors of military sexual assault. This is appalling and continues to highlight the necessity for the MJIA. The time to act on the Military Justice Improvement Act is now,” said Tom Porter, Legislative Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

“The Military Services have been promising for years now to hold commanders accountable for proper execution of their responsibilities under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However too many commanders continue to mishandle or dismiss accusations of sexual violence — that is why SWAN strongly supports the Military Justice Improvement Act,” said Lory Manning, Director of Government Relations at Service Women’s Action Network.

“VVA stands in solidarity with Senator Gillibrand’s re-introduction of the MJIA. We at Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) have grown tired of hearing from the Department of Defense that it has ‘zero tolerance’ toward military sexual trauma in the ranks,” said Dr. Tom Berger, Executive Director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America.

Gillibrand, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, has introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act every year since 2013. The bill has been voted on twice on the floor of the Senate, winning a bipartisan majority vote both times but failing to overcome a filibuster threshold of 60 votes. Gillibrand today called for another vote on the Military Justice Improvement Act to hold the military accountable for sexual assault against American service members.

More information on the Military Justice Improvement Act can be found here.