What Do the Latest Changes to Military Sexual Assault Prosecution Mean?

A tremendous shift recently occurred in the US military justice system, one that is set to reshape how cases involving sexual assault, among other serious offenses, are handled. This historic change primarily aims to address longstanding concerns and improve trust in the system. But what do these reforms entail, and how do they impact you as a military service member?

The Shift from Commanders to Prosecutors

Traditionally, the authority to prosecute cases involving sexual assault and other major offenses has rested with military commanders. This has historically led to reluctance among victims, with many fearing the potential repercussions of reporting incidents within their own chain of command.

With the executive order President Joe Biden signed in July 2023, this responsibility will transfer from commanders to trained military prosecutors. This move is intended to lend an objective, professional lens to the decision-making process, alleviating concerns about potential biases or conflicts of interest. Senior Biden administration officials claim this is the most sweeping change to the military legal code since it was created over 70 years ago.

The Pentagon has already started implementing the change. In fact, in 2022, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force established new special trial counsel offices, which will take over prosecution decisions by the end of 2023. And beginning January 1, 2025, trained military prosecutors will take over all sexual harassment cases.

A Response to Increasing Concerns

For years now, the Pentagon has witnessed an unsettling rise in reported sexual assaults within its ranks. Yet, it has historically resisted the idea of removing sexual assault cases from the normal chain of command. Despite concerted efforts to make the reporting process safer and more accessible, the number of assaults has consistently increased since 2006. In all, nearly 9,000 cases of military sexual assault were reported in 2022, an increase over the almost 8,900 cases from the prior year.

Furthermore, it became increasingly clear that an environment where commanders could potentially overlook or downplay incidents to protect their units was untenable. The decision to remove prosecutorial authority from military commanders addresses this issue head-on and ensures a more effective justice system.

Key Provisions in the New Changes

The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military recommended the changes to military sexual assault prosecution two years ago. President Biden has now signed the executive order, which amends the rules found in the Manual for Courts-Martial in several ways:

  • The order establishes special trial counsels: These independent military prosecutors will decide whether to prosecute allegations of sexual assault, domestic violence, and certain other major offenses, replacing military commanders in this role.
  • It protects prosecutors’ independence: Rules have been established to ensure that the military chain of command does not influence the special trial counsel’s decisions. This provision seeks to foster a system that prioritizes justice over internal politics or hierarchy.
  • It safeguards rights during court proceedings: The changes introduce procedures to protect both the victim and the accused before, during, and after court-martial proceedings. This ensures a fair trial process for all parties involved.
  • It promotes uniform sentencing: The reforms reduce disparities in sentencing, especially in cases involving rape and sexual assault. This addresses concerns about potential inconsistencies in the meting out of justice.

What the Future Holds

While these reforms are groundbreaking, their impact will only become evident over time. The changes are expected to foster greater trust and professionalism within the military justice system. They are in direct response to the collective voices of survivors, advocates, veterans, and lawmakers who have for years sought a more transparent, accountable, and effective process for addressing military sexual assault.

Contact a Trusted Advocate

Navigating the military justice system isn’t easy, especially in light of recent prosecution changes. Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, is a valuable place to turn. Whether you have questions on this topic or seek unmatched legal representation, we’re here to help. Call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 today to receive personalized attention and speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your concerns.

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