Joint Chiefs to testify on sexual assault legislation

Several high-profile incidents in recent months coupled with a Pentagon report estimating the number of assaults in 2012 had risen by a third has sparked momentum in Congress to change the military judicial code.

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The two bills that have generated the most debate surround the military's chain of command.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has proposed legislation that would take the decision to prosecute felony-level cases outside of the chain of command and give it to military prosecutors. She says her bill will encourage sexual assault victims to report the crimes.

Rep. Jackie Speier (R-Calif.) has legislation that would create an independent office to investigate and prosecute sexual assault crimes.

Opponents of the measures say that the commander is responsible for life and death decisions for his troops and must retain the ability to choose to punish them in order to maintain good order and discipline. 

So far, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Dempsey have said they are open to all proposals and are not weighing in on specific legislation, although Hagel had expressed support for the chain of command before Gillibrand’s bill was released.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) sent a letter to Dempsey last week asking him to weigh in on the various legislation.

The Armed Services panels are considering the various pieces of sexual assault legislation to include as part of the annual Defense authorization bill.

The military has already backed one reform to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that is included in a number of lawmakers’ bills. The measures would strip military commanders’ ability to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict in a post-trial review, a change that has been proposed in response to an Air Force sexual assault case earlier this year.

The hearing will also give the military a chance to discuss a number other provisions that have been proposed in roughly a dozen bills. Those range from granting victims whistleblower protections to transferring service members accused of assault out of units to requiring dismissal for those convicted of sexual assault or rape.

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