After eight years of attempting to pass a military sexual assault reform bill, it appears the legislation finally has enough support to pass in the Senate. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) co-authored the bill, which is backed by 61 senators on both sides of the aisle. This level of support means the legislation can finally move forward after nearly a decade of pushback from the Department of Defense (DoD).
What exactly does the military sexual assault reform bill change? And what does this legislation mean for the accused?
Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Military
During the unveiling of the military sexual assault reform bill on Capitol Hill, Gillibrand asserted that “sexual assault in our military has been an uncontrolled epidemic [for decades], hurting readiness, recruitment, and morale.” Advocate groups have also repeatedly said that there has been no improvement despite decades of promises from leadership and commanders to deliver accountability.
Indeed, the military continues to report climbing instances of sexual misconduct. The most recent report on military sexual assault from the Pentagon found that about 20,500 service members—13,000 women and 7,500 men—experienced some form of sexual assault in fiscal 2019. This is about 37 percent higher than the numbers reported in 2017.
What is the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act?
Gillibrand called earning the support of 41 Democrats, 18 Republicans, and two Independents a “defining moment” after similar bills in the past failed in the Senate by only a few votes. Support for this “common-sense legislation” comes after President Joe Biden promised in March to “end the scourge of sexual assault” in the military.
Gillibrand anticipates that the bill will “ensure that the justice system works for all service members and enact measures to help prevent sexual assault across our armed forces.” Ernst, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel and sexual assault survivor, echoed Gillibrand’s remarks, saying, “I am just so excited that hopefully, we will [be] making changes that make a significant difference in our military men’s and women’s lives.”
This bipartisan military sexual assault reform bill aims to create a more professional and transparent military justice system for sexual assault and other serious crimes. It also provides additional sexual assault prevention measures. Specifically, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act proposes the following:
- Remove the right to prosecute sexual assault from military commanders, who often lack legal training. Instead, independent, trained, and professional military prosecutors, also known as judge advocates, are put in charge of deciding these cases. (Misdemeanors and uniquely military crimes will stay within the chain of command.) This dramatic change in the way sexual crimes are prosecuted is expected to empower commanders to focus on mission-critical activities while still holding perpetrators accountable.
- Require the DoD to support criminal investigators and military prosecutors by helping them develop the unique skills needed to handle cases related to sexual harassment and assault.
- Ensure that the Secretary of Defense surveys and improves physical security measures at military installations to increase safety in service members’ living and sleeping quarters. Recommended upgrades include installing locks, putting in security cameras, and performing other passive security measures.
- Improve education and training techniques on military sexual assault for commanders in all branches of the armed forces. Proper training would instill a no-tolerance mindset for sexual assault and other grievous crimes among service members.
What is the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act?
The death of Vanessa Guillen, the soldier whose dismembered body was discovered in June 2020, resulted in public outcry and the demand for improved handling of sexual assault and harassment in the military. Following her murder, the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen went viral on social media, and hundreds of service members shared their accounts of being sexually harassed or assaulted in the military.
A draft of the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act was first introduced in Congress in September 2020. Now, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have reintroduced this legislation in the House. Similar to the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, the bill would take decisions on sexual assault and harassment charges away from commanders. It would also:
- Make sexual harassment a standalone crime in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
- Create a confidential sexual assault reporting system.
- Require the Government Accountability Office to study how different military branches handle missing service members.
What These Military Sexual Assault Reform Bills Could Mean for the Accused
Handing over decisions regarding sexual assault to trained legal professionals should be beneficial for everyone involved in sexual assault cases. With qualified, independent judge advocates at the helm, fabricated claims should be more likely to be dismissed rather than proceeding to court martial. Likewise, perpetrators who committed the crimes for which they are accused should be held responsible for their actions at a higher rate. As a result, more innocent service members should avoid the stigma of false accusations, prosecution success rates should increase, and victims should receive the justice they deserve.
Defend Yourself Against Sexual Assault Claims
Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law is an accomplished, experienced military defense attorney with a particular specialty in sexual assault cases. Over 90 percent of his caseload relates to sexual assault claims, many of which he concludes never actually happened.
If you need professional assistance defending yourself against false or inflated claims of sexual assault, Mr. Jordan can represent you. With his counsel, you’ll receive expert help formulating a credible defense, ease your stress while preparing for your court martial, and work to lessen your sentence or even have your case dismissed.