Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) yesterday filed the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) as an amendment to the FY16 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bipartisan amendment, which would move the decision of whether to prosecute serious crimes in the military including sexual assault, from the chain-of-command and give responsibility to independent military prosecutors, was introduced with 25 cosponsors, including 6 Republicans.

According to Department of Defense data, there were 20,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2014, an average of 52 incidents of unwanted sexual contact every day. Few incidents, however, are reported. According to Senator Gillibrand’s office, as many as 75 percent of survivors report the crime, and of those who do report, 62 percent experience retaliation, despite reforms making retaliation a crime.

Senator Gillibrand, however, questions the accuracy of the DOD data, pointing out that even as the DOD numbers are unacceptably high, the reality of the problem is likely far worse. Conducting her own review of DOD case files, Senator Gillibrand found that 53 percent of the total cases were filed by civilian survivors and non-military spouses. Yet, the DOD’s estimates on military sexual assault include only crimes against servicemembers, not civilians.

Survivors are also not receiving justice. Of the 107 military sexual assault cases filed, just over 20 percent went to trial and only 10 percent of all cases resulted in a sexual assault conviction with penalties of confinement and dishonorable discharge, according to a report issued by the Senator. These findings starkly contradict the Pentagon’s assertion that the commander-led justice system currently exercised for cases of military sexual assault will lead to tough punishment of service members accused of sex crimes. In fact, a recent report by Human Rights Watch and Protect Our Defenders found that servicemembers who reported sexual assault were 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation than to see the offender get convicted for the sex offense.

“The brave men and women we send to war to keep us safe deserve nothing less than a justice system equal to their sacrifice,” said Senator Gillibrand, speaking on the floor today. “We owe that to them.”

The MJIA was introduced last session both as an NDAA amendment and as a stand-alone bill. Although a majority of Senators supported the bill, it did not get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

Media Resources: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Press Release 6/4/15; Human Rights Watch 5/18/15; Feminist Newswire 5/4/15, 12/12/14; Huffington Post 5/4/15

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