Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) discusses the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act at a press conference
Greg Nash

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) longtime push to overhaul how the military handles sexual assault cases has earned the support of 61 senators on both sides of the aisle.

The legislation, written by Gillibrand and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), would remove decisions about whether to prosecute sexual assault and several other serious crimes from the hands of military commanders. Specially trained military prosecutors would instead decide.

The support means the bill, known as the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, has reached enough votes needed to move forward after years of pushback from the Defense Department

Gillibrand called the backing of the 41 Democrats, 18 Republicans and two independents a “defining moment,” after trying for nearly a decade to gain such endorsement on similar bills that failed in the Senate by only a few votes. 

“We have secured the critical support needed to deliver justice to survivors of sexual assault and other serious crimes in our military,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “For decades, sexual assault in our military has been an uncontrolled epidemic hurting readiness, recruitment, and morale. This common sense legislation will ensure that the justice system works for all service members and enact measures to help prevent sexual assault across our armed forces.”

The bill’s support comes after President Biden promised in March to “end the scourge of sexual assault” in the military. 

The commander in chief also ordered a civilian-led commission at the Pentagon to investigate the problem. The panel last month advised Defense Department leadership to follow the same lines as Gillibrand’s bill and designate independent judge advocates to decide whether to charge someone in certain cases of special victims crimes including sexual assault, sexual harassment and possibly certain hate crimes.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who has pledged to prioritize combating sexual assault and harassment in the services, is reviewing the recommendations and has indicated he is open to such changes.

Ernst, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel and sexual assault survivor who previously opposed taking the decision to prosecute out of the chain of command, has said she reconsidered after the April 2020 killing of Spc. Vanessa Guillén at Fort Hood, Texas, and years of persistent cases of sexual assault and harassment, which she herself had dealt with while in uniform. 

She backed the bill after she worked with Gillibrand to add several prevention efforts to it, including better training for commanders and increased physical security measures.

“We’ve written a new, bipartisan bill that will bolster sexual assault prevention efforts; hold perpetrators accountable while ensuring commanders still have visibility of their unit; and equip military prosecutors with the skills necessary to handle these sensitive cases,” Ernst said in the statement.

A similar bill in the House, known as the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act, was reintroduced Thursday by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a news conference outside the Capitol building alongside Guillén’s family.

That bill — which also would take the decision on sexual assault and harassment charges from commanders — in addition would make sexual harassment a stand-alone crime in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, create a confidential system to report sexual harassment and require the Government Accountability Office to study how different military branches handle missing service members.

The Pentagon’s most recent report on military sexual assault found that there were 7,825 reported cases of during fiscal 2019, a little more than a 1 percent jump from the previous year.

Tags Jackie Speier Joe Biden Joni Ernst Kirsten Gillibrand Lloyd Austin military sexual assault Nancy Pelosi

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