Lawmakers Reach Deal to Overhaul How Military Handles Sexual Assault Cases

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Under the agreement, commanders’ powers would beryllium clipped aft years of complaints astir unfairness and retaliation.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, left, and Representative Jackie Speier, 2nd  from left, worked for years connected  authorities   to overhaul however  intersexual  battle  cases successful  the subject   were handled.
Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Jennifer Steinhauer

Dec. 7, 2021, 7:40 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators reached a landmark statement connected Tuesday that would portion subject commanders of astir of their authorization to prosecute intersexual assaults and myriad different transgression cases, a determination that Pentagon leaders, lawmakers and presidents person resisted for astir a generation.

The legislation, portion of a wide defence argumentation bill, comes aft astir 2 decades of efforts by pistillate lawmakers and survivors’ groups, and successful spite of fierce last-minute lobbying against the connection by subject lawyers.

Under the agreement, autarkic subject prosecutors would regenerate commanders successful determining whether those accused of intersexual assault, rape, murder, home unit and an array of different offenses would beryllium prosecuted. Sexual harassment would beryllium criminalized, but would not autumn nether the peculiar authoritative structure, a concession to opponents of the changes.

The measurement does not spell arsenic acold arsenic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has agelong sought, and she vowed to combat for further changes successful the caller year.

But the caller strategy would beryllium a oversea alteration successful the attack to the intransigent contented of intersexual battle successful the military.

Don Christensen, a erstwhile main authoritative of the U.S. Air Force who is present president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit enactment that has worked connected the contented for a decade, called the caller authorities “the astir important subject justness betterment successful our nation’s history.”

Under existent law, commanders person the authorization to find which cases are referred to courts-martial, the excavation of eligible jurors and the scope of clemency requests.

Under the caller agreement, “special proceedings counsel” would beryllium tasked with assessing the cases covered by the authorities and person the exclusive authorization to notation them to courts-martial.

Each subject work would person a pb peculiar proceedings counsel who would study straight to the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, alternatively than justice advocator generals wrong the military, an contented that became a last-minute sticking point. Those pushing for changes to the existent strategy argued that civilian leaders appointed by the president and answerable to Congress indispensable clasp that role.

Commanders volition support their authorization to behaviour the trials, take assemblage members, assistance immunity, and o.k. witnesses, conditions that proponents accidental were technically indispensable to guarantee owed process and the just medication of subject justice.

But Ms. Gillibrand said that constituent rendered the caller authorities insufficient. “Removing that authorization from commanders is critical,” she said successful a statement.

“This measure represents a large setback connected behalf of work members, women and survivors successful particular,” she said. “However, we volition not halt seeking existent subject justness reforms for our brave work members and I volition proceed to telephone for an up oregon down level vote.”

The compromise authorities would besides necessitate the Pentagon to way instances of retaliation crossed the Department of Defense and enact important changes to however sentencing is handled.

The efforts bespeak generational changes successful the equipped services, with younger members speaking out much forcefully against the existent system, and shifting views among lawmakers successful some parties who person complained astir the Pentagon’s tepid effect — and deficiency of advancement — to assault.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III had been profoundly disturbed by the shortcomings of the existent strategy during his years arsenic an Army general. Both helium and President Biden this twelvemonth came retired successful enactment of changing however the subject handles intersexual battle cases.

“While not perfect, the statement is acold from a setback for survivors and their advocates,” said Lynn Rosenthal, the chairwoman of an autarkic reappraisal committee that Mr. Austin appointed this twelvemonth to travel up with recommendations connected the issue. “Instead, it represents a historical measurement toward justice.”

General Mark A. Milley, the president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had agelong opposed the changes but acknowledged past outpouring that inferior enlisted troops had mostly mislaid religion that intersexual battle cases would beryllium handled fairly.

The question gained momentum past twelvemonth aft the decease of Vanessa Guillen, an Army specializer who instrumentality enforcement officials said was killed by different soldier astatine Fort Hood successful Texas. The lawsuit acceptable disconnected a heavy introspection of the culture of the Army base and the broader subject successful which battle has remained pervasive. Years of tiny legislative steps person done small to stem the problem, and Ms. Gillibrand, arsenic good arsenic Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, who had besides worked connected authorities for years, were often rebuffed by chap lawmakers and Pentagon officials.

Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, said her own acquisition with intersexual assault informed her views connected the issue, which successful crook influenced different Republicans to enactment specified efforts this year.

The caller instrumentality volition instrumentality 2 years to rotation out, lawmakers said.

In 2019, the Defense Department found that determination were 7,825 reports of intersexual battle involving work members arsenic victims, a 3 percent summation from 2018. The condemnation complaint for cases was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 percent of cases that the bid took enactment connected resulted successful conviction, the lowest complaint since the section began reporting successful 2010. An autarkic 2020 review recovered that much than 30 percent of charges of penetrative intersexual discourtesy should not person been brought to proceedings due to the fact that of insufficient evidence.

“Though this statement intelligibly does not see everything my colleagues and I pushed for,” Ms. Speier said, “it is simply a elephantine leap guardant for survivors of intersexual battle and marks a watershed infinitesimal successful the combat for justness for those failed by the existent system, and the household members of those slain oregon who died by termination arsenic a effect of that failure.”

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