Washington, D.C. – Sexual harassment and assault are a major issue in the military, but service members who are also victims may not be getting protections they have long been seeking as the Senate failed to pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which would take the prosecution of assault cases out of the hands of military commanders and into the hands of a third party.
The issue reared its head earlier this year when several military officials tasked with developing sexual assault and harassment programs where themselves charged with sexual misconduct. In the fallout of this scandal, the military dismissed over 60 people who were assigned to work in reducing sexual assault and harassment. Lawmakers were also enraged that military commanders chose not prosecute certain rape and assault cases because the accused person was seen as an asset to the military.
This was only compounded by new data that showed military sexual assaults and harassment rose sharply in fiscal year 2012. Data from the Pentagon shows that incidents of unwanted sexual contact increased by 37 percent, which compelled lawmakers to develop a legislative solution, but that solution is facing tough opposition in the Senate.
A set of amendments introduced by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand would take the decision to prosecute assault and rapes out of the hands of military commanders into the hands of a third party. It includes at least two dozen reforms which would radically change the military’s sexual misconduct reporting system. The reasoning behind the legislation is that a third party would be more likely to aggressively pursue a case than a commander.
Sen. Gillibrand insists that the victims are reluctant to report assault and harassment because their superiors don’t follow up with the allegations, blame the victim or take no action against the perpetrator. She believes that allowing judge advocates to decide whether a case should be prosecuted would help curtail the rampant problem in the military.
The legislation includes provisions that would strip commanders of their power to overturn jury convictions and reviews of decisions not to prosecute. Those who are convicted of sexual assault would face a dishonorable discharge and make it crime to retaliate against the reporting individual, according to Reuters.
Lawmakers who oppose the bills are hung up on the chain of command in the reporting these incidents. Since the military has a clearly defined chain of command some lawmakers are reluctant or approve any legislation that interrupts that, which is seen as critical to maintaining order in the military.
“I cannot stress to my colleagues enough how ill-conceived this system is from a military justice point of view and the damage you are going to do to the command and to the fighting force if you go down this road,” Sen. Lindsay Graham said, according to Reuters.
Another issue with the legislation is funding; the military estimates that the new legislation could cost the military an estimated $100 million to institute and execute, but Gillibrand’s legislation does not provide that necessary funding.
Some Senators think that counseling for the victims and aggressive training programs would be more effective at preventing unwanted sexual contact than disrupting the military chain of command.