April 30 (UPI) — A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday introduced a sweeping military justice reform bill to transfer decision-making power over whether serious crimes such as sexual assault should be prosecuted to independent prosecutors.
Before veteran survivors of sexual assault and advocates for military justice reform, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told reporters during a press conference in Washington, D.C., that the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act takes a commonsense approach to delivering justice to survivors of serious crimes and preventing sexual assault within the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Sexual assault in our military is an epidemic. It has been for a very long time,” Gillibrand said. “It’s clear that this system is not working. We can’t have good order and discipline when crimes like these are occurring within our ranks and when the culture on base is one not of justice but of retaliation.”
The bill was announced as the Pentagon conducts a 90-day examination of sexual assault in the military by an independent review commission, which Secretary of Defense Austin announced on Feb. 26, saying sexual assault and harassment “remain persistent and corrosive problems across the total force.”
According to statistics from 2018, the latest year the Defense Department conducted a prevalence survey concerning sexual assault, one in 16 active duty women were sexually assaulted. Some 20,500 service members, including 13,000 women, experience some kind of sexual contact or penetrative assault in 2018, up from 14,900 in 2016.
Amy Marsh, a military spouse and a survivor of sexual assault, told reporters that she believes she would have had a better chance of achieving justice if a person outside of the chain of command would have considered prosecuting her case.
“Like so many other survivors, I made the tremendously difficult decision to report what happened to me because I knew it was necessary to stop predators from victimizing even more servicemen and women,” she said. “Instead of seeing my offender prosecuted what I experienced after reporting was retaliation against my family, destruction of my husband’s military career and an attack on my character that resulted in us having to relocate to a different state so that we could try to rebuild our fractured lives again.”
She said the bill unveiled Thursday will prevent others from experiencing what she and her family went through.
Marsh added that she is aware that sexual assault cases are difficult for the government to prosecute and that her offender may have been acquitted but believes she would have had a better chance of achieving justice if the case was handled by a trained and professional prosecutor.
The bill, which Gillibrand first introduced in 2013, argues that by removing the decision over prosecuting serious crimes from commanders they will be better able to focus on mission-critical activities.
It also ensures the Pentagon supports criminal investigators and military prosecutors through training concerning sexual assault and domestic violence while requiring the secretary of Defense to survey and improve physical security such as locks and security cameras on military installations. It also calls for increasing and improving training and education on military sexual assault throughout the military.
Decisions on whether to pursue misdemeanor crimes and uniquely military crimes will remain with the military command, it said.
Gillibrand told reporters Wednesday that she is “certain” the bill will now pass with its bipartisan and coalition support.
“We owe it to our services members to do more to prevent these crimes and prosecute them when they occur,” she said.