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Sexual assault crimes spark landmark bill that would professionalize military legal system

WASHINGTON -- Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) today introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, a landmark bill that would change the way the military prosecutes crimes, including crimes involving sexual assault.

Under the current military justice system, commanding officers maintain the authority to control criminal cases as they move through the military courts. This has led to a system that does not provide justice for victims or proper due process rights for the accused. This has been seen recently in the military’s consistent mishandling of sexual assault cases.

The bill would move the authority to determine which cases to send to trial and the selections of judges and juries to professional prosecutors and court administrators in cases involving serious crimes. It would also restrict a commander’s ability to overturn or set aside a court martial conviction, similar to a proposal made by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel earlier this year.

“The current commander-based system is a throwback to the days of the Revolutionary War and was established at a time when military courts did not even exist,” said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “The military does not send our troops into battle with 18th century weapons, nor does it treat the wounds of war with 18th century medicine, so why does today’s military continue to use an 18th century legal system?”

“Many of our trusted allies have adopted a modern legal system where decisions to prosecute serious crimes are made by legal professionals rather than commanding officers,” Bhagwati said.

Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Military Personnel Subcommittee along with Senator Boxer, said she was prompted to introduce this bill after holding hearings and carefully examining the military justice system in light of the crisis of sexual assault in the military.

“The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new,” Gillibrand said. “And it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long. Due to a number of hard to fathom events this issue has been raised to the national consciousness. We must seize the opportunity and act so we can get closer to a true zero tolerance reality in the Armed Forces. Congress would be derelict in its duty of oversight if we just shrugged our shoulders at these 26,000 sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and did nothing. We simply have to do better by them."

“In the context of military sexual assault, it is critical that legal professionals handle these cases,” said Bhagwati, who has testified before Congress numerous times on this issue. “Only by establishing an impartial and trusted legal system will victims be willing to come forward to report assaults and perpetrators be deterred from committing them.”

"We're thrilled about the introduction of the Military Justice Improvement Act and we applaud the leadership of Senator Gillibrand and Senator Boxer,” Bhagwati said.

According to Pentagon reports, there were an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012 involving men and women, gay and straight. Only 3,374 were reported. Of those reported only 302 cases proceeded to trial.