The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said he is considering plans to establish an independent prosecutor to handle all sex crimes in the military, a potentially major change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice stemming from years of frustration over the Defense Department’s handling of the issue.
“Over a decade or more we have tried different approaches to limiting sexual assault, sexual harassment and also retaliation, and we haven’t seen the progress that we hoped,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told reporters in a roundtable event Wednesday morning. “And so I think the idea of separation is once again on the table.”
Advocacy groups and several congressional Democrats have pushed for the move for years, arguing that military commanders are inclined to overlook accusations of sexual misconduct in favor of keeping personnel in place.
They say an independent prosecutor experienced in those cases would be more likely to file and pursue charges, especially in cases of repeat offenders.
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Military leaders have strongly objected to the idea, saying it would upend the current chain of command and remove the responsibility of addressing the issue from unit leaders. On the campaign trail, then presidential candidate Joe Biden also offered support for the idea of separate prosecutors for sex crimes in the military.
Last year the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office unveiled that sexual assault reports increased 3 percent from fiscal 2018 to 2019, with more than 6,200 cases. But officials estimated that less than 40 percent of all assaults are reported.
Meanwhile, fewer 200 of those cases resulted in convictions in fiscal 2018. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calf. — the chairwomen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees’ military personnel panels — earlier this month labeled those results “a broken system that punishes victims while allowing most perpetrators to escape any consequences for their actions.”
In early February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a new commission to evaluate sexual misconduct in the ranks over the next few months. Reed said the move is needed, but said that won’t be enough.
“One of the ethical tenets of the military is you protect your subordinates … sexual harassment and sexual assault is exploitation and can’t, can’t be tolerated,” he said. “It’s antithetical to the American military, and we’re going to be very serious about this.”
A Pentagon study found that many rape court-martials did not have enough evidence to convict.
Reed said he wants to focus more on prevention of sexual assaults and harassment in the military, but said that issue is interconnected with the prosecution of crimes that occur. If cases are properly investigated and prosecuted, “people will feel comfortable reporting people.”
“If changes to the judicial system accelerate that progression, then it should be considered,” he said.
Members of Reed’s committee are expected to begin work on their draft of the annual defense authorization bill in coming months. In recent years, the issue of independent prosecutors for military sex crimes has been widely discussed during that debate, but ultimately defeated.
However, Democrats control both the House and Senate this year, which could mean new momentum for the proposal if party leaders can convince their own members to support the idea.