For the last eight years, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been arguing the military justice system is in need of massive overhaul to better address sexual assault and harassment cases.
Next year, those changes may finally be put in place.
Last month, during debate over the annual defense authorization bill, Senate Armed Services Committee members adopted Gillibrand’s proposal to remove serious crimes from the traditional military chain of command. House Armed Services Committee members are expected to follow suit when they mark up their draft of the bill next month.
It’s potentially a massive change in how many military crimes are handled, one that goes against Pentagon recommendations that only sexual misconduct crimes be handled by independent military prosecutors.
But Gillibrand, D-N.Y., argues it is long overdue and precisely what is needed to restore faith in military justice officials and other leaders. Military Times sat down with her last week to talk about the potential impact of the changes and the work still ahead.
(Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity)
MT: If I’m an average soldier or sailor, why should I care about these military justice changes?
Gillibrand: These are reforms that honor the service of our men and women. The men and women of our military sacrifice so much, they deserve a military justice system that’s worthy of that sacrifice: one that’s fair, one that’s highly professionalized, and one that takes serious crime seriously.
And I think this is a bill that helps the whole process. Whether you’re a plaintiff or a defendant, any serious crime is now going to be taken seriously with no bias. So instead of having the system where the commander decides which cases go to trial, trained military unbiased prosecutors outside the chain of command will now decide which serious crime should go to trial.
That independence, that professionalized review, will strengthen our military justice system and make it a fair and better process for everyone.
MT: You’ve talked a lot about just just how sweeping these changes are. But you’ve also said in the past that you don’t see this as a real upheaval to the justice system, you think this can be done in a relatively short time frame.
Gillibrand: So today, we reserve the ability to make a decision on general courts martial to very senior commanders level, O-6 and above. There’s about 200 that currently make those decisions for all the military.
So what our bill does is when the military police complete an investigation of a serious crime, instead of that case file going to the commander’s [judge advocate general], it’s going to go to a senior JAG outside of the chain of command to make a decision about whether or not there’s enough evidence to proceed to trial.
If that trained, independent military prosecutor decides there’s not enough evidence, then the case file goes right back to the commander and the commander’s personal JAG who would normally handle the case. So it’s a very small change.
We have more than enough senior lawyers, about the same number as we have of O-6 commanders and above who have the convening authority. So we have the same number of staff that are needed, the same seniority, they just are independent of the chain of command of the victim and the accused.
MT: Do you worry at all that DoD may try and drag its feet on this change? Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that he’d like to see just the sexual misconduct crimes taken out, not all serious crimes.
Gillibrand: Well, if they read the bill for what it is, and actually understand the change, it’s very simple. Which lawyer’s desk does the case file go to first? That’s all it is. And this independent military prosecutor will make a judgment. And if he chooses not to take this case to trial, it goes right back to the commander. So it changes very little.
Second, yes, they may drag their feet. And to limit it just to sex crimes means that only one type of plaintiff and only one type of defendant is getting this professionalized, independent, unbiased review.
If you’re going to reform the military justice system, why wouldn’t you reform it for all serious crimes? Why wouldn’t you reform it for all plaintiffs and all defendants in cases that are very complex?
And if you only care about fixing this scourge of sexual assault, you also want the bright line at serious crimes because a lot of serious crimes that are often related, that have in a first blush review might not realize that they’re related …
We’ve seen cases of fraud, where because the perpetrator is trying to dominate and control the victim, that one of the tools they use is financial. He may steal her money, steal her credit card, close out a bank account just to create more dominance.
Because sexual assault and these these crimes are crimes of predation. They’re predators. And they’re usually crimes of dominance. It’s not about an affair or romance, it’s typically about control. And so we know in the domestic violence setting, all these tools are used.
And so a service member may report that her bank accounts have been closed or her money’s been stolen. If that commander doesn’t understand the dynamics of sexual violence or domestic abuse, he may never investigate that case further, and just decide on a very small punishment to say “stop stealing money, this is absurd.”
They’re not understanding that this is the tip of the iceberg for domestic violence or sexual assault case.
MT: Portions of this that remind me of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate, where there was a lot of concern about making a change … and then within a few years, it was really accepted. Do you see this as the same?
Gillibrand: I do. And the reason why I believe that is because it’s what happened with our allies.
This change of a bright line and serious crimes was made in the United Kingdom over a decade ago. It was made in Israel over 40 years ago. Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Germany, almost every country that we are allied with has made this change.
And we ask those countries, how did it go? Did you see a diminution in command control? Did you see a diminution in good order discipline? Every single one of them said no.
And so we know this change, all it does is professionalize the system and make it stronger. And we believe that one change will help to end the scourge of of sexual assault in the military, and harassment.
MT: I know a lot of this is technical changes. But there is obviously an emotional component for the victims that you’ve gotten to talk to, the folks who have been wronged by the system. What are you hearing from them?
Gillibrand: They feel grateful that Congress is finally listening to them. This bill was written eight years ago, with the voices of survivors and veterans. This is something that is multigenerational and uniformly supported by our veterans advocacy groups and our sexual assault survivor groups, because they know that through professionalization, and through independence, that their chances at justice are higher.
Unfortunately, over the last eight years, nothing has gotten better. The rate of sexual assault [in the military] still estimated at 20,000 [cases annually]. The rate of people coming forward, unfortunately, is declining. And the rate of conviction is declining over the last few years, and so it’s problematic.
We need, again, a professionalized system where the review is not based on the whims or views or anecdotal view of any one commander. They’re based on evidence. And that’s all a survivor or defendant could ask for, an evidence based review.
It’s the fairest system and I think it will help to convict more sexual predators, which will mean a message is sent that this crime actually isn’t tolerated and that you will be convicted. Every time you take out a predator, who often are recidivists, you’re going to tell other potential predators that this crime is not tolerated.
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.