Congress Clashes on Sexual Assault in Military

Capitol dome against a blue sky

The Senate Armed Services Committee, siding with Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), resolved to leave decisions about sexual assault prosecution in the hands of military commanders rather than removing those decisions from the chain-of-command. In a 17 to 9 vote, the committee approved Levin’s approach over a competing proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), which would have turned such decisions over to independent prosecutors within the Defense Department.

The bill passed by the committee does require a senior military officer to review each instance in which a commander declines to prosecute a sexual assault case, and eliminates the ability of commanders to unilaterally overturn juries’ decisions. It also makes retaliation against service members for reporting sex crimes a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice; and requires the secretary of defense to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the training members of the armed forces receive on sexual assault prevention and response.

Gillibrand has vowed to continue fighting for the provision to remove prosecution decisions from commanders, and plans to try again when the bill goes before the full Senate for a vote later this year.

Sexual assault issues dominated the debate over this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which annually authorizes all military programs. The debate followed a report released by the Defense Department, which found that the number of military victims of unwanted sexual contact rose last year to 26,000.

The House this month approved its own version of the NDAA. Among other things, the House bill requires a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for any service member convicted of rape or sexual assault; requires any enlisted personnel and noncommissioned warrant officers convicted of these crimes be dishonorably discharged; removes commanders’ ability to overturn convictions in rape and sexual assault cases; and eliminates the five-year statute of limitations for trial by court-martial in sexual assault and sexual assault of a child cases. The House bill also leaves prosecution decisions to commanders.

Following Senate approval, the House and Senate will conference to reconcile their versions of the bill.

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