Shaheen Joins Bipartisan Group of Senators to Introduce Legislation to Address Military Sexual Assault and Protect Service Members

November 17, 2017

**The Military Justice Improvement Act would establish an impartial, fair and accountable Military Justice System**

(Washington, DC) U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) joined a bipartisan group of 13 Senators to re-introduce the Military Justice Improvement Act. In recent months, scandal after scandal has shown that despite years of efforts and small reforms, sexual assault and harassment remain pervasive in the military. Top officials in the military continue to assert that they alone will fix this, but little has changed.

“Sexual harassment and assault are serious problems in our society and won’t go away unless we actively work to change the culture,” said Senator Shaheen. “This is particularly true in our military, where the chain of command’s decision-making process can intimidate survivors and dissuade them from reporting these types of crimes. I’m proud to support this bipartisan legislation, which will help us take an important step forward to combat sexual assault and stand up for survivors.”

“For over 25 years, the Pentagon has insisted they have a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment,” said Don Christensen, Former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force and President of Protect Our Defenders Col (ret.). “Decades of scandals have disproved these claims, and the most recent data proves conclusively that the military is failing to live up to their declarations of zero tolerance. Last year, there were over 4,600 unrestricted reports of sexual assault and rape in the military – an all-time high. Even in the rare cases where survivors report, 98% of the time their assailant is not convicted. This is not zero tolerance nor is it a successful system. It is time for the Senate to finally say enough is enough and pass the Military Justice Improvement Act.”

“It is unacceptable that not enough is being done to protect survivors of military sexual assault or to prevent these egregious crimes from happening in the first place,” said Tom Porter, Legislative Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “In IAVA's most recent membership survey, only 19% of IAVA's women veteran members and 33% of men said they think DoD is effectively addressing sexual assault. Additionally, 35% of IAVA women members and 1% of male members are survivors of military sexual assault. This is appalling and continues to highlight the necessity for the MJIA. The time to act on the Military Justice Improvement Act is now."

“The Military Services have been promising for years now to hold commanders accountable for proper execution of their responsibilities under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” said Lory Manning, Director of Government Relations at Service Women’s Action Network. “However too many commanders continue to mishandle or dismiss accusations of sexual violence — that is why SWAN strongly supports the Military Justice Improvement Act.”

“VVA stands in solidarity with Senator Gillibrand’s re-introduction of the MJIA. We at Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) have grown tired of hearing from the Department of Defense that it has ‘zero tolerance’ toward military sexual trauma in the ranks,” said Dr. Tom Berger, Executive Director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America.

Repeated testimony from survivors and former commanders proves that there is widespread reluctance on the part of survivors to come forward to trial. Last year, the Department of Defense announced a record number of sexual assaults reported against service members, and the lowest conviction rates for their assailants on record, at just 9%. The most recent Pentagon survey found that nearly 6 out of 10 survivors say they have experienced some form of retaliation for reporting the crime.

On October 26th, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) published their results, which were equally troubling:

  • Only 19% of women and 33% of men think the Department of Defense is doing a good job of addressing military sexual assault. 
  • 71% of female respondents said they experienced retaliation when they reported, as did 64% of men. 
  • 46% of women and 35% of men said they would be more likely to report being assaulted if, instead of a commander, a trained military prosecutor made the decision to move forward with the case, as the Military Justice Improvement Act would do.

The bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act 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.

Specifically, the bill 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.
  • Judge advocates vested with disposition authority will
    • Be outside the chain of command of the accused.
    • Exercise professional prosecutorial discretion when deciding whether to proceed to court martial.
    • Render decisions to proceed to trial that are free from outside influence and binding upon the Convening Authority.

More information on the Military Justice Improvement Act can be found here.