House Democrats advanced a plan to partially remove military commanders at service academies from decisions to prosecute sexual assault accusations, instead relying on an independent expert to evaluate the cases.

The move, included as part of the House Armed Services Committee’s annual defense authorization bill, drew significant criticism from House Republicans who said the move will undermine the military justice system and could lead to fewer prosecutions for the crimes.

But Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., head of the committee’s personnel panel and sponsor of the measure, said the changes are needed to restore faith among young service members that their reports of harassment and abuse by classmates will be taken seriously and pursued vigorously.

“I have spoken to countless survivors who saw their dreams, and bright futures, extinguished after reporting assaults and harassment,” she said. “These amazing candidates, many of them who lead their academy classes in grades and citizenship, deserve a fair and just independent review process.”

A recent review of the military service academies showed that the number of sexual assaults reported by students doubled from 2013 to 2018, even as the reporting rate dropped.

Speier’s plan is a four-year pilot program establishing an independent chief prosecutor to review all sexual assault reports at military academies and determine which cases should be referred to court-martial.

Sexual assault victims’ advocates have pushed for the traditional military chain of command to be removed from those decisions in the past, arguing that senior military leaders are either ill-informed about how to proceed with such cases or inclined to dismiss them to conceal problems in the ranks.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, unsuccessfully tried to offer an alternative plan, arguing the new pilot program set a problematic new legal precedent by handling sexual assault cases in the active-duty force differently from ones at the academies.

He and other Repbulican members also argued that the move would de-emphasize commanders’ role in ending sexual assault and harassment instead of holding them accountable for the offenses.

The provision requires the independent official would be a one-star general or admiral with “significant experience prosecuting sexual assault trials” who is independent from the academies.

Before the idea can become reality, the idea must survive negotiations with Republican-controlled Senate, where lawmakers have for years opposed similar proposed moves from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Defense Department officials have also strongly objected to the idea, promising their own series of fixes to address the problem of criminal behavior among troops.

The House committee’s authorization bill draft also includes a host of other changes to military sexual assault policies, including expansions of the Special Victims’ Counsel program and new rules for consideration of transfer applications after a sexual assault is reported.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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