WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to prevent sexual assault in the military, protect victims, and boost prosecutions of sexual predators, the U.S. Senate last night unanimously approved legislation reforming how sexual assault cases are handled by the U.S. military.  U.S. Senator Jack Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the bill builds on historic reforms passed last year and that Congress and the military need to continue focusing on efforts to curb sexual assaults and hold perpetrators accountable.

“There can be no tolerance of sexual assault in the military, and there must be a concerted and sustained cultural shift at every level of the Defense Department.  Senator Claire McCaskill’s legislation will help end a system that didn’t always live up to its ideals.  I encourage the House to take up and pass this bill to ensure justice for victims and promote greater accountability throughout the ranks,” said Reed.  “This legislation will go a long way toward strengthening the rights of victims and enhancing the tools to prosecute sexual predators.  It will help ensure impartial justice for service members while holding the military to a higher standard and holding commanders accountable for the conduct of their troops.”

Three months ago, Senator Reed helped pass, and President Obama signed into law, a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that included several historic changes to the military's system for reporting and investigating sexual assaults.  The reforms include:

  • Prohibiting commanders from overturning jury convictions;
  • Requiring civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case;
  • Assigning victims their own independent legal counsel to protect their rights and fight for their interests;
  • Mandating dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sexual assault;
  • Criminalizing retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault;
  • Eliminating the statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases; and
  • Reforming the pre-trial “Article-32” process to better protect victims.

This additional legislation, which was introduced by Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Deb Fischer (R-NE) builds on these reforms by:

Strengthening the role of the prosecutor in advising commanders on going to Court Martial.  In the event a prosecutor recommends a case go forward and the commander disagrees, under the amendment, the case is kicked up for review to the civilian service secretary, providing yet another level of review in these cases when needed.  The National Defense Authorization Act currently requires the higher-level review only when there is disagreement between the commander and his or her legal counsel/judge advocate.

Eliminating the “Good Soldier Defense.”  The bill modifies the Military Rules of Evidence to prevent defendants from using good military character unless it is directly relevant to an element of the crime for which they are charged.

Allowing victim input in prosecution of perpetrators.  Requires Special Victims Counsels to advise victims of the advantages & disadvantages of a case being prosecuted in the military or civilian justice system and provides victims the opportunity to express their preference on where the case is heard, giving a victim a greater degree of control of his or her case.

Boosting accountability of commanders for addressing sexual assault and setting appropriate command climate.  Strengthens evaluations for commanding officers and the command climate they establish as it relates to allegations of sexual assault and the way victims of crimes are treated within the unit following reports.

Allowing sexual assault victims to challenge their discharge or separation from service.  Requires the services to set up a confidential process that will enable a victim of a sexual assault who was subsequently discharged to challenge the terms or characterization of his or her discharge—in order to take a retrospective look at possible instances of retaliation.

Extending protections to the Military Service Academies.  Clarifies that all changes in the NDAA related to sexual assault prevention and response apply to the military service academies.

The U.S. House of Representatives has not yet taken up a version of this bill.