Udall, Heinrich Reintroduce Military Justice Improvement Act To Address Crisis Of Military Sexual Assault

This bipartisan legislation would create an impartial, fair, and accountable military justice system

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 13, 2019) – U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich reintroduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes by moving the decision over whether to prosecute them to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is the leading sponsor of the legislation.

According to the Department of Defense’s (DoD) own data in this year’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) report, there were an estimated 20,500 instances of sexual assault – a massive increase over the 14,900 estimated in the previous 2016 survey. The number of women in the military who experienced sexual assault increased by 50 percent, from 8,600 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to 13,000 in FY2018. In fact, by DoD’s own admission, the odds of young service women experiencing a sexual assault is one in eight, yet commanders have sent fewer cases to trial – from 588 in FY2014, to 389 in FY2016, to 307 in FY2018.

“The current system has failed too many survivors of sexual assault who fought to defend and protect our country and our rights – only to have their rights denied because of a broken system. As a former prosecutor, I believe reforms to the way the military handles sexual assault crimes are long past due. Survivors are not wrong to lack confidence in the current system when, time and time again, perpetrators walk free while survivors are denied justice – or even worse, face retaliation. These crimes are devasting for survivors, their families, and their careers and have a corrosive impact on the morale of our armed services,” said Udall. “I am proud to stand with Senator Gillibrand to ensure justice for survivors of sexual assault, and accountability for the perpetrators of these terrible crimes."

“Sexual harassment and assault cannot be tolerated in our society, whether it’s in the military, at home, in the executive suite, or anywhere else,” said Heinrich, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must take serious steps to address this issue head on. This legislation that Senator Gillibrand has tirelessly pursued since I came to the Senate will make our Armed Services stronger. I am proud to cosponsor the Military Justice Improvement Act to create a military justice system that holds perpetrators accountable and cultivates a safer, more respectful environment for our servicemembers.”

“Our nation’s military leaders have spent decades promising ‘zero tolerance’ on sexual assault, but it’s painfully clear that they’ve failed at that mission. The Pentagon, by its own admission, is out of time – and should now be out of excuses,” said Gillibrand. “For years, survivor after survivor has told us the change we need to make in the military justice system to end the scourge of sexual assault in our military – the same change that some of our allies all around the world have already made: move the decision to try these crimes outside of the chain of command to trained military prosecutors. The Department of Defense has tried incremental reforms, but they clearly haven’t worked. Sexual assault is still pervasive – in fact the latest DoD numbers show that sexual assaults in the military have dramatically increased while the number of cases going to trial has gone down. None of this is acceptable. It’s long past time for Congress to step up and create accountability where the DoD has failed. That is how we will finally give our men and women in uniform a justice system that is fair, professional, and actually works.”

Five years ago, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said the military was “on the clock” to fix military sexual assault, and indicated it would be right to bring a bill back to the floor in a year if they hadn’t solved the problem. In the years since, incremental reforms have been implemented yet sexual assault in the military has remained pervasive and dramatically increased over the last two years, with many service members still having little faith in the military justice system.

Specifically, the Military Justice Improvement Act 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. 
  • Ensure that judge advocates vested with disposition authority would:
    • Be outside the chain of command of the accused.
    • Exercise professional prosecutorial judgment when deciding whether to proceed to court martial.
    • Render decisions to proceed to trial free from conflicts of interest.

Senators Udall and Heinrich join Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other cosponsors, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

“Protect Our Defenders proudly supports the Military Justice Improvement Act. Despite decades of promises from military leadership to end the scourge of military sexual assault, the crisis has only worsened,” said Don Christensen, President of Protect Our Defenders. “While the rate of sexual assault continues to climb, prosecutions under the commander controlled system have plummeted. Quite simply, the status quo has failed. By empowering military prosecutors, MJIA will bring accountability for those who commit these heinous crimes and justice for survivors.”

“The lack of substantive progress in addressing the pervasiveness of sexual assault in our nation's military is unacceptable and a matter that requires immediate and decisive redress. The failure to protect survivors and ebb these unspeakable crimes reflect poorly on our military and erodes the public confidence in the institution,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “IAVA's 2019 membership survey revealed a shocking 61% of veterans believed the DoD is not effectively addressing this crisis. We commend Senator Gillibrand's long-standing commitment to this critical issue.” 

“At SWAN we hear from and work with survivors on a daily basis. Their stories are always similar. If they decide to come forward and report they are generally not believed; they are seen as creating a problem where none existed before and they almost always suffer retaliation. They consistently tell us that their commanders failed them in profound ways,” said Dr. Ellen Haring, CEO of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Colonel (Ret.), US Army. “As a former Commander I can tell you that I would not want to have to decide if or when to move forward with the investigation of a sex crime because I know that my knowledge and expertise in this area is limited and that any JAG officer assigned to my command as an adviser would be a generalist. Furthermore, there are simply too many possible conflicts of interest for Commanders to be the best decision makers in sex crime cases not to mention the fact that there are Commanders themselves who have been perpetrators.”

Emily Martin, Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center said, “Women join the military to serve and protect their country—not to be sexually assaulted. But it’s a cruel reality that far too many women in the military are sexually assaulted on the job. And for the one in three who reports their abuse, little is done to stop it and they face routine retaliation by their commander and cohorts for speaking up. Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act of 2019 would attack the scourge of military sexual violence by removing prosecution authority over sexual assault from commanders. This inherent conflict of interest that shields perpetrators from facing the consequences of their abuse must end.”

“Inaction on MJIA leaves military commanders trapped in an impossible position. In my Marine Corps service, I witnessed first hand how the actions of my commander in the aftermath of a sexual assault tore apart cohesion, trust, and discipline within my unit. We need to place these decisions in the hands of expert prosecutors, allowing commanders to focus on their mission, where their expertise lies. The status quo is unsustainable, and there can be no more excuses. The more than 125,000 members of Common Defense call upon every Senator who supports justice for our troops and mission-effectiveness for our military to support the bi-partisan Military Justice Improvement Act. We see this vote as a critical, moral test of whether our representatives stand with everyday service members and veterans like us,” Alexander McCoy, Political Director of Common Defense and Marine Corps veteran.

“As not only a Military Sexual Assault Survivor, but as a former Commanding Officer of Navy War Ship, it is my belief the some crimes are so heinous, so serious, that they need to be handled by trained professional military judges. While the military has made some strides in combating sexual assault over the last few years, it still remains a pervasive problem that is not consistently addressed adequately at the command level. Sending these felonies to a professionalized military judicial system, out side of the victims and accused chain of command, demonstrates how seriously this crime is taken, that perpetrators will not be allowed to get away with these crimes, and re-emphasizes to countless victims that they will be taken seriously and treated with respect,” said Lieutenant Commander Erin Elliott, United States Navy.