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Washington D.C. – U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Mike Johanns (R-NE), Representatives Dan Benishek (R-MI) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Senators Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chris Coons (D-DE), Al Franken (D-MN), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Brian Schatz (D-HI, Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV),  and Representatives Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)  were joined today by victims of sexual assault in the military and organizations who assist victims of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) to announce new bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would reform the military justice system by removing the prosecution of all crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement from the chain of command, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave.

According to the FY2012 SAPRO report released last week by the Defense Department, an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in FY2012, a 37% increase from FY2011. Another report released by the Defense Department late last month showed that more than 1 in 5 female servicemembers reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military.

The Military Justice Improvement Act would for the first time remove the decision whether to take a case to special or general court-martial completely out of the chain of command and give that discretion to experienced military prosecutors for all crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going AWOL.

Many of our allied modern militaries have reporting outside of the chain of command, such as Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway and Australia. For example, the British military has prosecutors making trial decisions for all crimes through the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA) within Britain’s Ministry of Defense.

The Military Justice Improvement Act also:

Codifies Secretary Hagel’s proposed changes to the UCMJ’s Article 60 so that the convening authority may not (a) set aside a guilty finding or (b) change a finding of guilty to a lesser included offense.  The legislation further alters Article 60 to require the convening authority to prepare a written justification for any changes made to court-martial sentences.

Provides the offices of the military chiefs of staff with the authority and discretion to establish courts, empanel juries and choose judges to hear cases (i.e. convening authority).

This legislation does not amend Article 15. Commanding officers will still be able to order non-judicial punishment for offenses not directed to trial by the prosecutors.

“America is home to the world’s best and brightest, brave men and women who join the armed services for all the right reasons – to serve our country, defend all that we hold sacred, and make America’s military the best the world has ever known,” Senator Gillibrand said. “But too often, these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not off on some far-away battlefield, but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence. Our bipartisan bill takes this issue head on by removing decision-making from the chain of command, and giving that discretion to experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience where it belongs. That’s how we will achieve accountability, justice and fairness.”

“To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious, and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers.  It is for their sake that the pattern of covering up, blaming the victim, and failing to provide even the most basic protections that has been all too common for far too long must end,” said Senator Collins.  “We must continue to work to ensure that no woman or man who joins the military is denied the justice and the protections available to civilians.  Ultimately, the military’s policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault must become a culture of zero tolerance to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place.”

"The fact is that out of the 26,000 estimated sexual assaults in the military, only 3,000 were reported and only 300 were prosecuted. That means there are thousands of felons walking around -- free and dangerous -- in the military today," Senator Boxer said. "This bill will encourage victims to report these heinous crimes and know that they will get swift and fair justice."

"Our military men and women put their lives on the line to keep us safe, yet that same promise can’t be made to our soldiers when it comes to sexual assaults. This legislation helps ensure that these appalling crimes are fully prosecuted, in a timely manner, by military courts,” Senator Johanns said.

"Right now, too many sexual assaults in our military go unreported. My daughter is a military veteran so I know exactly the kind of hard-working women we have in our armed forces.  This situation is a travesty and we need to fix it now.  I want to thank Senator Gillibrand for her bold leadership on this effort.  As a doctor, I’m used to working with others to find solutions. There are no Democrats or Republicans in the operating room—only team work.  That’s how it should be and that’s exactly what we are doing," said Rep. Dan Benishek, a general surgeon and Michigan's only member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. 

“Our legislation ensures that military sexual assault victims who come forward are guaranteed a safe, fair, and transparent process, free from fear of retaliation,” said Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. “We in Congress and leaders in the Defense Department need to keep shining a spotlight on this very disturbing problem. We cannot and will not let this issue lie. Together, we must foster a respectful, productive environment for our military men and women. The success of our Armed Forces – and the security they provide our nation – depends on it.”

“Members of our military—male or female—deserve to serve in an environment that ensures their safety and is responsive to their concerns,” said Senator Begich.  “The current military system to prosecute sexual assaults is a cumbersome and insensitive process that provides little support for victims. This new legislation helps brings more impartiality to the system and prevents jury decisions from being overturned by one person.”

“These latest incidents involving alleged sexual assault by military personnel assigned to stop them, dramatize the urgent need to give this problem greatly heightened priority,” Senator Blumenthal said. “We must have action now, not merely plans or promises. When sexual assault protectors become perpetrators military order and discipline become a mockery. For victims already afraid to come forward before these incidents, the chilling effect is incalculable. Sexual assault is a vicious, predatory crime that must be vigorously investigated and punished in the military so that more survivors will be encouraged to report it and more perpetrators will be deterred from committing it. We have the best and strongest military force in the history of the nation and the world, and our men and women in uniform deserve a military justice system worthy of their excellence.”

"The disturbing rise in sexual assaults in our armed forces is simply unacceptable and absolutely cannot be tolerated," Senator Coons said. "The Pentagon has to do a better job of preventing these criminal acts — and they are criminal — and that starts with making sure that everyone who wears a uniform knows that not only is sexual abuse unacceptable, but that there will be real repercussions for it. This legislation will put people who are trained and skilled at administering justice in charge of how accusations of sexual assault are handled in our armed forces."

“The sheer number of sexual assaults experienced by members of our military is totally unacceptable. It's outrageous how hard it is for these survivors to seek and get justice,” said Sen. Franken. “I’m proud to support legislation that will reform how the military justice system deals with those who commit these heinous crimes.”

“The brave women and men who serve should be protected when they sacrifice so much for their country.  Instead, many are targeted and become victims of sexual assault and harassment, sometimes even within their own units. I look forward to working closely with my Senate Armed Services Committee colleagues to move these much-needed reforms into this year’s defense authorization,” said Senator Hirono.

"I'm volcanic about sexual assault in our military ranks. From Tailhook to Fort Hood, sexual assault is not an isolated incident, it is a systemic and persistent problem," Senator Mikulski said. "It's time for real action. This legislation will help change the culture in our fighting forces. It will ensure that victims of sexual assault are not victimized again by commanders that looks the other way. Our fighting women and men in uniform need to know they have a government and leadership on their side, and that sexual assault, rape and abuse will not be tolerated."

“We’ve continued to hear about sexual assault in the military, and that’s unacceptable,” Senator Pryor said. “We can’t afford to excuse this behavior any longer. Our bill enforces a fair court process so we can hold perpetrators accountable. This is a common-sense solution.”

“Sexual assault in the military is intolerable and tragic,” said Senator Brian Schatz. “It is the federal government’s responsibility to end this behavior and protect service members. Senator Gillibrand’s legislation puts military legal professionals in charge of prosecuting serious crimes like sexual assaults, leaving commanders to prosecute military missions.  Commanders will still be responsible for non-judicial punishments, honoring the important traditions of the military justice system.   This bill calls for tough, pragmatic and necessary changes and I fully support Senator Gillibrand’s efforts.”

“We have an obligation to act and to act now to address sexual assault in the military,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen.  “This is too urgent of an issue and we’ve seen one too many reports about this crisis in recent weeks. We must do everything in our power to address this crisis and I’m committed to working with my colleagues to make that goal a reality.”

“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,” Senator Grassley said.  “This reform would go a long way to seeing sexual assault crimes fully prosecuted in a timely way and in military courts.”

“No American should have to worry about justice if they are sexually assaulted,” U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna said. “More concerning than the disgustingly high number of sexual assaults charged within our Armed Services are the number of incidents that go unreported. The system is broken, and this bill is one step toward creating a safe environment for all our service members. We must ensure justice for victims. Perpetrators must be prosecuted to the highest extent of the law.”

"In college, I worked as a rape crisis counselor.  I understood then that rape and sexual assault are violent crimes that too often escape the reach of justice.  I also knew then that if I could do anything to help stop these violent acts from happening to anyone – even just one person – I would do it.  I applaud Senator Gillibrand for her leadership on this issue and I applaud my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for coming together to support this reform. This simple and common sense reform to our military justice system places responsibly and accountability into the hands of experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience.  Our service members deserve that,” Rep. Sinema said.

"Last week's Pentagon report was a massive wake-up call that compels us to meaningfully re-examine how we prevent sexual assaults within the military and help victims of military sexual trauma," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We support Senator Gillibrand's common sense proposal. IAVA will continue to work with members from both parties to strengthen our efforts to combat military sexual assaults and support victims, including tens of thousands of servicemembers who have sexual trauma claims trapped in the VA backlog."

Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said, “Commanders must no longer be permitted to interfere with victim reporting and judicial proceedings. Fifty-percent of victims report the perpetrator is of higher rank and 23% of victims’ report the perpetrator is in their chain of command. The reforms put forth in this bill are crucial to protecting victims from bias and intimidation, and will give them a fighting chance to achieve justice and prevent further attacks. The authority to decide which cases go to trial, and to determine the ultimate outcome of a court-martial, must be taken out of the chain of command. Protect Our Defenders applauds Senator Gillibrand, Senator Boxer, Senator Collins and all the other elected officials that have supported this legislation for their leadership.”

According to the FY2012 SAPRO report released last week by the Defense Department, an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact occurred in FY2012, a 37% increase from FY2011. Meanwhile, overall rates of reporting dropped from 13.5% in 2011 to 9.8% in 2012. In 2011, victims reported 3,192 out of 19,000 incidents, compared to 2012, where victims reported just 3,374 out of 26,000 incidents. While the number of perpetrators convicted of committing a sexual assault increased from 191 in 2011 to 238 in 2012, the conviction rate dropped from 1% in 2011 to 0.9% in 2012.

Of the 3,374 total reports in 2012, 2,558 reports were unrestricted, which means they were actionable. Of those 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.  The remaining cases were for aggravated sexual contact, nonconsensual sodomy, indecent assault and attempts to commit those offenses.

Also according to the FY2012 SAPRO report, across the Services, 74% of females and 60% of males perceived one or more barriers to reporting sexual assault. 62% of victims who reported a sexual assault indicated they perceived some form of professional, social, and/or administrative retaliation.

In a separate report released late last month by the Department of Defense, the Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel for 2011 showed that more than 1 in 5 female servicemembers reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military.