Senate approves McCaskill reforms on military sexual assault

The Senate yesterday voted overwhelmingly to approve Sen. Claire McCaskill’s bill to strengthen prosecutions of military sexual assaults and criminalize retaliations against victims who report sex crimes.

S. 1917 Victims Protection Act of 2014 passed the Senate with 97 votes. The bill would improve oversight and hold commanders accountable for how they address cases of sexual assaults and how they treat victims of those crimes.

In instances where a commander disagrees with military prosecutors’ recommendation to proceed on a sexual assault case, the bill would require the civilian service secretary to review the commander’s decision.

The Victims Protection Act would take away a commander’s ability to overturn jury convictions, mandate a dishonorable discharge for any service member convicted of sexual assault, make it unlawful to retaliate against victims who report sexual assault, give victims more “weight” in their inputs on whether the crime should tried in military or civilian courts, and eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes.

The bill would also bar defendants from using the “good soldier defense”.

McCaskill, the lead sponsor of S. 1917, said the “sweeping, historic, sea-changing reform” would protect victims, hold military commanders accountable, and bring perpetrators to justice.

A competing bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) failed to win the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster last week.

Gillibrand’s bill – S. 1752 Military Justice Improvement Act – would move the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases to independent military prosecutors outside of the chain of command of the victim or the accused.

Gillibrand said this change would remove the “clear bias and inherent conflicts of interest posed by the military chain of command’s current sole decision-making power over whether cases move forward to a trial” and encourage victims to report sexual assault crimes.

While Gillibrand applauded the reforms in McCaskill’s bill, she argued that they do not go “far enough”.

“We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military,” said Gillibrand. “I always hoped we could do the right thing here – and deliver a military justice system that is free from bias and conflict of interest – a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us.”

McCaskill argued the reforms in Gillibrand’s bill would “result in fewer prosecutions” of military sexual assault cases. McCaskill also raised concerns about the implications of taking away the decision to prosecute from the chain of command, which in effect “let the commanders off the hook.”

“If you don’t have the commanders as part of the solution, they are part of the problem. And I think we can hold them accountable. We can ferret out the bad ones. We now know that we have multiple reviews and oversight in this area,” said McCaskill. “But at the end of the day, the good commanders can make all the difference as to whether or not you change a culture in the military.”

An estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact or assault in the military occurred in 2012. About a quarter of the victims reported that the offender was someone in their chain of command.


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