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Senate Comm. Endorses Efforts To Address Military Sexual Assaults; Editorials Criticize Removal of Key Provision

Senate Comm. Endorses Efforts To Address Military Sexual Assaults; Editorials Criticize Removal of Key Provision

June 13, 2013 — The Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday advanced provisions in a defense bill aimed at addressing sexual assault in the military, but lawmakers removed one measure that would have taken decisions about prosecuting sex crimes out of the chain of command, Reuters reports (Alexander, Reuters, 6/12).

The removed provision -- written by Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chair Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) -- would have allowed military prosecutors, rather than commanders, to decide which sexual assault cases to try, with the goal of encouraging more individuals to report crimes by reducing fear of retaliation.

The annual National Defense Authorization Act includes several other provision to address military sexual assaults, including measures that would limit commanders' ability to overturn guilty verdicts, bar them from considering the accused individual's character when making decisions on how to handle allegations and require them to immediately report the crimes to a military criminal investigations organization (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/12).

Alternative Proposal

To replace Gillibrand's provision, the committee voted 17-9 to approve a plan by Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that would continue to allow commanders to make prosecution decisions but require a more senior military leader to review any allegations that are not pursued in court. Levin's proposal also would make it a crime to retaliate against individuals who report sexual assaults.

The alternative proposal is designed to address concerns from military leaders who oppose taking the decisions out of the chain of command.

Levin said that while the military has a "serious problem with sexual assault," he does "not support removing the authority of commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases and putting that decision in the hands of military lawyers outside of the chain of command" (Reuters, 6/12).

Gillibrand in a statement said she is "deeply disappointed" but noted that the sexual assault provisions the committee did approve are still "significant steps forward" (Mak, Politico, 6/12).

Editorials Comment on Military Sexual Assaults

The New York Times and USA Today published editorials criticizing the committee's decision to replace Gillibrand's proposal. Summaries are below.

~ New York Times: "The spate of alarming incidents in recent months underscoring the depth of the military's sexual assault problem did not dissuade [Levin] from killing the most promising corrective on the table," a Times editorial states, adding, "It is distressing that two decades of scandals could not persuade Mr. Levin to budge from his decision to support the military brass." The editorial continues that Gillibrand "has done a diligent job of building a bipartisan coalition pressing for more sweeping change, and further debate about the sexual assault problem and its solutions can help strengthen the result when the Senate negotiates a final bill with the House" (New York Times, 6/12).

~ USA Today: The editorial criticizes the committee for "scuttl[ing] a measure that would have drastically changed military law by taking the decision of whether to prosecute major crimes, including sexual assaults, away from commanders and placing them in the hands of professional military prosecutors." It notes, "The problem is not only that some commanders fail to prosecute the cases brought to them, but that the whole chain of command is seen as so hostile, most victims refuse to report allegations," adding, "Only an essential change in the system can break this appalling cycle" (USA Today, 6/12).