U.S. Senate Advances Historic Military Justice Reforms Inspired by Vanessa Guillen & Her Family
WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the U.S. Senate voted 86-13 to advance the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes historic reforms to how the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assault and other offenses -- including murder, manslaughter, and kidnapping -- under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Once the bill becomes law and is implemented, specialized, independent military prosecutors will decide which cases get prosecuted, rather than commanders. Also, for the first time, the NDAA will create a new punitive article criminalizing sexual harassment in the military as prejudicial to good order and discipline. In the civilian U.S. legal system, sexual harassment is not a crime and is generally handled as a civil matter.
After the cloture vote, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, thanked and credited the Guillen family for their tireless, unwavering advocacy to strengthen the military justice system and historically change the way the military responds to allegations of sexual assault and other crimes.
“This bill is a major victory for all military sexual assault survivors and will lead to lasting changes in the military justice system to ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice within the armed forces. This is a historic step toward ensuring that no one ever suffers in silence or feels their voice won’t be heard,” said Reed.
“The family of U.S. Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen deserves special recognition for their role in bringing about this transformative change. I hope today’s vote and the reforms it brings about offer some measure of comfort to her family. They have suffered an unspeakable tragedy and used their voices to help others and deliver positive, lasting change,” said Reed. “After traveling to Fort Hood in September 2020 in the aftermath of the investigations into Specialist Guillen’s murder and other cases, I came away convinced that not only was there systemic failure by the chain of command and other Fort Hood leadership to protect soldiers under their command, but that reforms were needed to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
In addition to establishing sexual harassment as a new criminal offense, the NDAA requires that complaints of sexual harassment be investigated by an independent investigator outside the chain of command. The bill further requires the Secretary of Defense to designate an office to track allegations of retaliation against victims of sexual assault or harassment within the armed forces, authorizes the Department of Defense Safe Helpline to receive restricted reports of sexual assault, and authorizes the Department to provide support to victims making such reports. It also gives victims the right to know about administrative actions taken against their offenders.
“This legislation is a major step forward, but it won’t be the last. We must continue to focus on this issue and work to ensure the law is effective. There is no legislative ‘silver bullet’ here. We have to tackle this issue from every angle, and continue working to change the culture of how the military – and society – prevents and handles sexual misconduct. From ensuring accountability to increasing prevention to changing command culture and climate to enhancing victim care, we’ve got to keep working to serve justice and stamp out sexual misconduct in the military, the workplace, on college campuses, and throughout society,” said Reed.
Now that cloture has been invoked, the Senate may use up to thirty hours of debate before voting on final passage. The NDAA previously passed the U.S. House of Representatives 363-70. After final passage in the U.S. Senate, it will be sent to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.