Senate defense bill would make military sexual harassment standalone crime

Senate defense bill would make military sexual harassment standalone crime
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A key Senate panel is looking to move the needle on curtailing sexual assault in the military.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), released Thursday, includes numerous reforms to policies surrounding military sexual assault and harassment, including making sexual harassment a stand-alone offense in the military's criminal justice system. 

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A senior committee aide told reporters the bill asks the Pentagon to launch several studies, including taking "a harder look at alternative systems for preventing sexual assault, what have we done that can work and what can we do going forward.” 

“We are tackling the issue from every angle we can,” the aide added.

The bill includes provisions to help prevent and deal with sexual assault, including new training requirements and rules regarding victim support.

The bill would also mandate the development of a plan to create a Department of Defense-wide data management system to better share and track information on criminal cases. 

The number of cases of unwanted sexual contact — a term that covers groping to rape — jumped to 20,500 in 2018 from 14,900 in 2016, according to a Pentagon report released earlier this month.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) — who disclosed earlier this year that she was raped by a superior officer while she served in the Air Force — earlier this month introduced legislation to address how the military handles sexual assault claims, including making sexual harassment a stand-alone offense under the military law. That legislation has made it into the NDAA, according to a statement from McSally’s office.

“These reforms represent the voices of many who do not have the opportunity to change the system,” she said.

McSally in the past has stressed the military should keep the power to prosecute cases within the chain of command, with commanders deciding whether assault cases should go forward.

The aide told reporters that there is no move to take the decisionmaking authority away from the military, though there will be several other initiatives to influence the chain of command “in terms creating an environment where sexual harassment and sexual assault will not be tolerated.”

Other language offered by Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstTrump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle MORE (R-Iowa), however, asks the Defense Department to study what would happen if the Pentagon were to remove commanders from considering sexual assault cases.