Military Justice Improvement Act: Congress' Chance to Boldly Address Sexual Assault in the Military

This week’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on legislation currently being considered to address military sexual assault could not come at a more critical time. Last month, the DOD released its annual report which showed incidents of sexual assault had risen by 34%, to and estimated 26,000 sexual offenses in 2012, while the reporting rate dropped to just 9.8% and convictions to just 0.9% of all cases. Perhaps most concerning, 62% of victims who were brave enough to make a report indicated they had experienced professional, social or administrative retaliation as a result of coming forward.

The Senate has an unprecedented opportunity to pass bold and fundamental reforms, which would bring meaningful change to the way the military handles cases of rape and sexual assault within its ranks, and bring relief and protection to victims.

The only comprehensive piece of legislation currently being considered, in the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act, is the Military Justice Improvement Act, introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Susan Collins, and Senator Boxer. This bi-partisan bill would remove the decision-making authority for prosecuting serious crimes (including rape and sexual assault) from the accused’s chain of command, and place it in the hands of trained military prosecutors. It would also prohibit a service member’s military service record from being used as evidence to prove reasonable doubt when deciding whether a case has enough merit to proceed to trial. This legislation is strongly backed by advocates of reform, which, they argue, would make the judicial process more objective and remove any bias that may exist between a commander and his troops.

The military vehemently opposes this legislation along with any systemic change, as they strongly reiterated during this week’s hearing. Military leaders have sought to assure lawmakers that they possess all of the tools necessary to end the crisis of rape and sexual assault in the military, deftly eluding the fact that it has continued to grow in spite of their purported commitment to fixing the problem. You have to wonder: if they have the capability to end this crisis all on their own, and the ultimate responsibility — as they argue — lies with the commanders, then how and why have they allowed this problem to rise to such epidemic proportions in the first place?

For decades, military leaders have insisted that they be left to their own devices to fix this issue. From the infamous Tailhook Scandal in 1991, to the ongoing Lackland Air Force Base scandal, they have claimed that the problem cannot be legislated away, and should be handled internally. Yet, the statistics show that any efforts they have taken thus far have been an utter failure. The number of sexual assaults has continued to rise, and the rates of reporting have remained abysmally low.

Time and again Congress has deferred to the military and passed palatable and incremental reforms. It is time for our civilian leaders to step in and say enough is enough. The military has had ample chances to end this crisis on their own, and as Senator Gillibrand bluntly told military leaders during Tuesday’s hearing, they have “lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you, that you will actually bring justice in these cases.” To believe that this time will be any different is foolhardy, and ensures continued abuse of the women and men who have signed up to serve our country and lay their lives on the line. They deserve better.