A large group of senators and representatives introduced the Military Justice and Improvement Act Thursday, in an attempt to curb what they say is a rampant problem of sexual assault in the armed forces.
Unveiled days after a series of embarrassments for the Air Force and Army, the bicameral and bipartisan bill most notably would separate the chain of command from the decision-making process over whether a sexual assault case should go to a special or general court martial. The legislation also would prohibit a senior officer, known as convening authority, from overriding an existing guilty finding. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel proposed that change, and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told us last week that it could be approved in this year's defense authorization bill.
"America is home to the world's best and brightest, brave men and women who joined the armed services for all the right reasons. ... But too often these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not in some far-away battlefield, but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a lead sponsor of the bill. "Our bipartisan bill takes this issue head on by removing the decision-making from the chain of command and giving that discretion to experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience where it belongs."
A report last week released by the Department of Defense estimated that there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault in fiscal 2012, up from 19,000 the year before.
The co-sponsors of the legislation so far are: Gillibrand; Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Mike Johanns, R-Neb.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii; Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.; Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Reps. Dan Benishek, R-Mich.; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; Richard Hanna, R-N.Y.; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
As for the future of the bill, Gillibrand said it could end up in the defense authorization bill. She said she has been seeking Levin's advice, but noted that no final decisions had been made yet.
"We're hoping to include it. ... We're hoping to build enough support in committee but if we don't, we'll bring it to the floor," Gillibrand said Thursday.