Reid backs changes to military’s judicial code following rise in sexual assaults

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday endorsed stripping military commanders of the ability to overturn guilty verdicts.

In a letter to the heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Reid said that he supported a plan proposed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to change the military’s judicial code.

Reid’s letter comes one day after President Obama called for the Pentagon to do a better job curbing the rise in sexual assaults after the department released a report estimating there were 26,000 incidents in 2012, an increase of 37 percent from 2010.

“As you prepare the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, I strongly urge you to include additional legislation to ensure justice for victims of sexual assault in the military and to prevent these horrific acts against service members in the future,” Reid wrote to Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Hagel issued a proposal last month to Congress that would remove the ability of military commanders to overturn guilty verdicts in most criminal cases during the post-trial review process that’s part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Hagel’s proposal would still allow commanders to reduce sentences, provided they provide a written explanation for doing so.

The proposal has gained bipartisan support in Congress, and is expected to be included in this year’s Defense authorization bill, as Reid suggested.

Some lawmakers, however, want to go a step further, and are calling for the removal of all sexual assault cases from the military’s chain of command. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is preparing legislation to do so in the Senate.

Reid said in the letter that proposals from Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) “deserve consideration.”

The military service chiefs have signed off on Hagel’s proposal to change the post-trial review process, but they have indicated opposition to removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command.