After Recent Department of Defense Report Highlights Failure to Address Crisis of Military Sexual Assault, Shaheen & Bipartisan Group of Senators Reintroduce Military Justice Improvement Act

June 13, 2019

**Renewed Push Follows Shocking DoD Report Showing Sexual Assaults in the Military Dramatically Increased While the Number of Cases Going to Trial Went Down**

**Five Years After Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey Said Military Was ‘On the Clock’ to Fix Military Sexual Assault, Sexual Assault Remains Pervasive and Many Service Members Still Have Little Faith in the System** 

**Bipartisan Legislation Would Create Impartial, Fair and Accountable Military Justice System**

(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH),the highest ranking woman on the Senate Armed Services Committee, joined a bipartisan group of Senators led by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to reintroduce the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes by moving the decision over whether to prosecute them to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors. According to the Department of Defense’s (DoD) own data in this year’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) report, there were an estimated 20,500 instances of sexual assault – a massive increase over the 14,900 estimated in the previous 2016 survey. The number of women in the military who experienced sexual assault increased by 50%, from 8,600 in fiscal year (FY) 2016 to 13,000 in FY2018. In fact, by DoD’s own admission, the odds of young servicewomen experiencing a sexual assault is one in eight, yet commanders have sent fewer cases to trial – from 588 in FY2014, to 389 in FY2016, to 307 in FY2018. 

Five years ago, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said the military was “on the clock” to fix military sexual assault, and indicated it would be right to bring a bill back to the floor in a year if they hadn’t solved the problem. In the years since, incremental reforms have been implemented yet sexual assault in the military has remained pervasive and dramatically increased over the last two years, with many service members still having little faith in the military justice system. 

“Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the nation, and recent data shows that incidents are increasing at an alarming rate in the military. Service members need to have confidence that if they come forward, justice will be pursued without retribution or stigma,” said Senator Shaheen. “This legislation will empower military prosecutors with the authority they need to step outside of the military chain of command’s decision-making power for the most serious crimes, helping to ensure perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes and that survivors are treated fairly and shielded from retaliation. No service member should be intimidated out of reporting an assault – I urge Leader McConnell to bring this bill up for a vote so we can protect and support our service members seeking justice.” 

“Protect Our Defenders proudly supports the Military Justice Improvement Act. Despite decades of promises from military leadership to end the scourge of military sexual assault, the crisis has only worsened,” said Don Christensen, President of Protect Our Defenders. “While the rate of sexual assault continues to climb, prosecutions under the commander controlled system have plummeted. Quite simply, the status quo has failed. By empowering military prosecutors, MJIA will bring accountability for those who commit these heinous crimes and justice for survivors.” 

“At SWAN we hear from and work with survivors on a daily basis. Their stories are always similar. If they decide to come forward and report they are generally not believed; they are seen as creating a problem where none existed before and they almost always suffer retaliation. They consistently tell us that their commanders failed them in profound ways,” said Dr. Ellen Haring, Colonel, CEO of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), US Army (retired). “As a former Commander I can tell you that I would not want to have to decide if or when to move forward with the investigation of a sex crime because I know that  my knowledge and expertise in this area is limited and that any JAG officer assigned to my command as an adviser would be a generalist. Furthermore, there are simply too many possible conflicts of interest for Commanders to be the best decision makers in sex crime cases not to mention the fact that there are Commanders themselves who have been perpetrators.” 

The Military Justice Improvement Act would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault, which would help remove the systemic fear that survivors of military sexual assault describe in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them. This legislation would remove the sole decision-making authority over whether serious crimes are prosecuted from the military chain-of-command and give it to independent, trained military prosecutors. Uniquely military crimes, such as a soldier going AWOL, and other non-judicial and administrative remedies would stay within the chain of command.

Specifically, the Military Justice Improvement Act would do the following: 

  • Grant the authority to send criminal charges to trial (disposition authority) to designated judge advocates (military lawyers) in the rank of O-6 or higher who possess significant criminal justice experience.
  • Ensure that judge advocates vested with disposition authority would:
    • Be outside the chain of command of the accused.
    • Exercise professional prosecutorial judgment when deciding whether to proceed to court martial.
    • Render decisions to proceed to trial free from conflicts of interest.

The legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Tina Smith (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).