On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin endorsed a proposed change in the military justice system that would remove the authority to prosecute sexual assault cases from the chain of command and instead transfer that authority to independent military lawyers.
Under the new recommendations, military commanders would no longer handle the prosecution of sexual assault cases. Instead, trained military criminal justice lawyers would decide how to prosecute service members accused of sexual assault.
Austin’s statement comes after the release of a report and recommendations made by the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military. The report “provides us real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military,” Austen said on Tuesday.
According to a Pentagon report, in 2019 13,000 women and 7,500 men survived sexual assault while serving in the military.
The IRC also recommended that domestic violence cases be prosecuted independently from the chain of command. Austin voiced his support for this measure as well, “given the strong correlation between these sorts of crimes and the prevalence of sexual assault.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), now chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, has been working for years on a bill to reform the way in which the military justice system handles not only sexual assault, but all serious crimes as well. Her bill, the Military Justice Improvement and Education Act, would put into place the reforms suggested by the IRC and Austin. It would remove control of cases from the chain of command and allow trained military lawyers to handle them instead. The bill aims to ensure an unbiased investigation and prosecution of all serious crimes.
According to Gillibrand, the Department of Defense estimates that there are 20,000 sexual assault cases within the military, but only just over 200 that ended in conviction. In response to Austin’s statement, Gillibrand said that his recommendations “are an excellent step in the right direction, but it’s not the full reform we need.”
Sources: NPR 6/23/21; US Department of Defense 6/22/21; CNN 6/23/21