Congress Approves Reforms to Address Sexual Assault in the Military

Congress has voted to strip commanders of the authority to overturn or modify findings and convictions of sexual assaults, one of more than 30 reforms aimed at reducing sexual assault in the military. The provisions are part of the annual authorization bill for the Defense Department, which is headed for the president’s signature following passage by both the House and Senate.

The legislation, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, will also:


  • Prohibit commanders from reducing guilty findings to guilty of a lesser offense;
  • Require an automatic review of any decision not to prosecute a sexual assault complaint;
  • Establish minimum sentencing guidelines and a mandatory dishonorable discharge for those service members found guilty of sexual-assault related offenses;
  • Criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault;
  • Eliminate the five-year statute of limitations for reporting sexual-assault related crimes; and
  • Require that all victims be provided with legal counsel (DoD has already put this reform in place, based on a successful pilot program by the Air Force).


Sexual assault issues dominated the debate over the defense bill, following a DoD report that there were 26,000 victims of unwanted sexual contact last year.

The most controversial provision, a plan to strip commanders of the authority to make decisions about prosecution and give that power to independent prosecutors, did not make it into the final bill. The proposal, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), is likely to get a separate vote in 2014.

One day after passage of the defense spending bill, President Obama ordered military leaders to conduct a comprehensive review of its sexual assault response and prevention programs. The president directed the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to submit a report with their findings by December 1, 2014.

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