NEW PENTAGON BILL WOULD PROVIDE SWEEPING UCMJ REFORM
January 4, 2016
It's been more than 30 years since there have been any amendments to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Department of Defense, however, is now looking to change that with a new bill, the Military Justice Act of 2016, which aims at improving sentencing guidelines, giving convicted troops better access to appellate actions, and making other key changes to "to improve the quality and efficiency of the military justice system."
According to Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon submitted the proposal to Congress in the final days of 2015. The proposed changes are a result of a two-year review by the Department of Defense that was ordered in 2013. According to a statement released by the DoD on the proposal, the review was conducted in the interest of improving how the military investigates and prosecutes sexual offense cases—a prevalent concern among a growing number of lawmakers and advocates.
"It has been more than 30 years since the department has undertaken to examine and update the UCMJ in a systematic fashion," then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said when the review was ordered. "The review we are now conducting will help ensure the continued effectiveness of our armed forces and the fair administration of justice for our servicemembers."
Just some of the proposed changes include:
- Requiring military judges to provide written judgments
- Providing new parameters for judges when ruling on sentencing
- Giving all convicted troops access to judicial review (appeal)
- Establishing new jury sizes for noncapital cases
- Using a consistent jury voting percentage in noncapital cases (75 percent)
- Providing new selection criteria for military judges
- Mandating how long military judges can serve in their positions
- Adding new offenses (credit and debit card fraud, government computer offenses, etc.)
According to the DoD’s statement, The Military Justice Act of 2016 has a total of 37 additions and amendments to the UCMJ. If approved, the changes would be rolled out over the course of the next five years.
A FOCUS ON SEXUAL ASSAULT CRIMES
Along with the systemic changes, The Military Justice Act of 2016 also proposes several amendments that zero-in on issues that the military has struggled with concerning sexual assault cases. These include:
- Changing the definition of “sexual act” to match civilian law definitions
- Using victim input on disposition decisions
- Using victim input to determine public access to case information and documents
- Adding a “Retaliation” offense (Article 132)
If passed, these measures would go a long way to satisfy current and long-standing critics of military court procedure—many of who that believe that the current system does not provide a safe environment for victims of sexual assault, or military members who come forward to report it.
STILL DIFFERENT THAN CIVILIAN COURT
As Stars and Stripes pointed out, many of the proposed changes in the Military Justice Act of 2016 would bring the military court system closer to mirroring our federal civilian court system. However, the two-year report stopped short of changing the UCMJ so much so that it would be identical to civilian court.
"This report’s proposals recommend retaining military-specific practices where the comparable civilian practice would be incompatible with the military’s purpose, function, and mission," it stated, "or would not further the goals of justice, discipline, and efficiency in the military context."
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