Grassley backs legislation to reform system for prosecuting sexual assault in the military services

WASHINGTON -- Senator Chuck Grassley is an original cosponsor of legislation introduced today to reform the military justice system and remove decisions about taking cases to special or general court martial out of the chain of command, giving discretion to military prosecutors except in uniquely military cases such as disobeying orders or going AWOL.

“This legislation responds to sexual violence inside the military and the fact that it’s gone unaddressed both at risk to and hurting the reputation of the courageous and outstanding men and women who serve our nation in the armed forces,” Grassley said.  “This reform would go a long way to seeing sexual assault crimes fully prosecuted in a timely way and in military courts.”

The legislation – the Military Justice Improvement Act – is sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.  An identical bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Dan Benisheck of Michigan.

In addition to removing prosecution questions from the chain of command for certain crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement, the measure would:

• Codify Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 60 so that the convening authority may not set aside a guilty finding or change a finding of guilty to a lesser included offense.  It also would alter Article 60 to require the convening authority to prepare a written justification for changes made to court martial sentences.

• Provide offices of the military chiefs of staff with authority and discretion to establish courts, empanel juries, and choose judges to hear cases.

The proposal does not amend Article 15, so commanding officers still would be able to order non-judicial punishment for offenses not directed to trial by the prosecutors.

In a report of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office released last week by the Department of Defense, an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact occurred in fiscal year 2012, a 37 percent increase from fiscal year 2011.  Overall rates of reporting dropped from 13.5 percent in 2011 to 9.8 percent in 2012.  In 2011, victims reported 3,192 out of 19,000 incidents.  Victims reported 3,374 out of 26,000 incidents.  The number of perpetrators convicted of committing a sexual assault increased from 191 in 2011 to 238 in 2012.  The conviction rate dropped from one percent in 2011 to 0.9 percent in 2012.

The report also said that of the 3,374 total reports in 2012, 2,558 reports were unrestricted, which means they were actionable.  Of the unrestricted reports, 27 percent were for rape, 35 percent were for abusive and wrongful sexual contact, and 28 percent were for aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault.  Remaining cases were for aggravated sexual contact, nonconsensual sodomy, indecent assault, and attempts to commit those offenses.  The report said that across the military services, 74 percent of females and 60 percent of males perceived one or more barriers to reporting sexual assault.  Of victims who reported a sexual assault, 62 percent indicated they perceived some form of professional, social, and/or administrative retaliation.

In introducing the Senate bill today, Gillibrand said that a separate report, released last month by the Department of Defense, found that more than one in five female service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual conduct while serving in the military.  The findings came from responses to the Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel for 2011.