Senate Passes Bill Tightening Regs on Sexual Assault in the Military

From left: Senator Claire McCaskill and Senator Kelly Ayotte at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2014, following a Senate vote on military sexual assaults .
Charles Dharapak—AP Senator Claire McCaskill and Senator Kelly Ayotte at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2014, following a Senate vote on military sexual assaults.

The Senate passed landmark legislation overhauling how the Defense Department handles sexual assault cases on a 97-0 vote, sending it to the House after a competing and more extensive bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand failed to beat a filibuster

As predicted, the Senate on Monday passed landmark legislation overhauling the regulations on how the Defense Department handles cases of sexual assault.

The bill, passed the the legislation 97-0. It now goes to the House where passage is also likely. The measure’s success was all but assured Friday after a competing bill sponsored by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand failed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

“Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare—but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we’ve achieved over the past year in the military justice system,” McCaskill said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “Today the Senate voted to strengthen even further what is now one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world, in which every victim will get their own lawyer, commanders will be held accountable, and more perpetrators will see the inside of a brig.”

Gillibrand, too, vowed to continue fighting for her measure. The key difference between the two bills is that Gillibrand’s legislation would have taken the prosecution of sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and given it to the Judge Advocates General Corps. Gillibrand argues that roughly a quarter of all sexual assault cases are perpetrated by someone in the chain of command, making reporting obviously difficult. Of the estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, only 3,000 were reported and 300 prosecuted.

McCaskill argues that other countries that have taken similar steps to remove reporting from the chain of command have not seen an uptick in reporting. McCaskill’s bill ensures that when a case is reported, if either or both the commander or prosecutor don’t want to proceed, the case is referred to the head of that military branch for review. Under Gillibrand’s bill, a case ends if a prosecutor doesn’t wish to move forward. McCaskill’s bill also gets rid of the “good soldier” defense that takes into account irrelevant factors such as the service record of the accused. In cases where there is a dual jurisdiction–if say, a crime was committed off of a military base–the victim would get a say in whether the case would be handled in a civilian or military court. Importantly, given the number of reported sexual assaults in the nation’s Air Force and Naval Academies, the measure also extends protections to students in service academies. Finally, it requires that in every promotion, a commander’s record on handling of sexual-assault cases gets taken into account.

Victim’s groups were disappointed with the outcome, expressing doubt that after years of promises the Pentagon needed a sea change in order to really address the issue. “Service members deserve a professional and unbiased justice system equal the system afforded to the civilians they protect. It is a travesty that this very practical, conservative measure, supported by a substantial majority of the Senate and 60% of Americans was blocked by a procedural filibuster,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect our Defenders, said of Gillibrand’s bill. “We may have lost this battle due to political maneuverings, but effective reform will be accomplished. It is only a matter of time. We will redouble our efforts to secure the legal rights of American servicemen and women who have been sexually abused while serving their country.”

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