Austin nearing decision on military sexual assault reform
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is nearing a decision on whether he will recommend the Defense Department change how it prosecutes sexual assault crimes, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said Wednesday.
Austin since April has pondered initial recommendations from an independent commission, which suggested taking the decision to prosecute sex crimes away from commanders and instead giving it to independent military prosecutors in an effort to improve the response to sexual assault.
The Pentagon chief has since heard from service leaders after they turned in their feedback last week. They also spoke with Austin for “a little bit more than an hour” on Tuesday, press secretary John Kirby told reporters.
Kirby said Austin does not have “a hard and fast deadline,” for his decision, but “it’s now with him and he’s taking the time I think necessary to make his own decisions and make his own recommendations to the president.”
The spokesman wouldn’t rule out that Austin “might want to have additional conversations outside [the Pentagon] or maybe even additional conversations with [service leaders] as he comes to his own conclusions.”
Austin’s recommendations to President Biden have been highly anticipated since January when he stood up a 90-day independent commission to review the department’s sexual assault prevention and response policies.
The 12 members of the group gave Austin their first recommendations three months later, the biggest of which was that prosecutions should be handled by lawyers trained to handle such cases.
Lawmakers, most notably Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), have also pressed for such changes. Gillibrand is currently publicly pushing for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to pick a side by giving her a vote on her bill, which, among other things, shifts the decision for prosecuting “serious crimes” including sexual assault, murder and manslaughter from the chain of command to independent military prosecutors.
A move for change has been further buoyed by the Biden administration pledging to “end the scourge of sexual assault” in the ranks and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley recently dropping his objection to prosecuting sexual assaults outside the military’s chain of command.
Reports of sexual assault within the military have steadily increased since 2006. The number even went up last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, when global troop movements and interactions were limited due to the health crisis. The Pentagon has installed several programs and efforts to reduce such cases but those moves have come up short in curtailing the problem.
“As he has said many times to all of you, he wants to make sure we get this right, and he wants to make sure he’s keeping an open mind,” Kirby said Tuesday on Austin’s forthcoming recommendations.
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