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Gillibrand bill to address military sexual assault is closer to passage

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks in Watertown in summer 2020. (Provided photo — Sydney Schaefer, Watertown Daily Times)

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced Thursday that a bill to move the prosecution of serious crimes in the military — particularly sexual assaults — from the chain of command to independent prosecutors has the bipartisan support needed for passage.

Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, has pushed for the approval of the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act many times over the past eight years, including during appearances at Fort Drum.

The senator said in a statement Thursday that she, along with U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; has secured 61 bipartisan cosponsors for the bill, a critical number of votes necessary to prevent the bill being stymied by filibuster. According to Senate cloture rules, 60 members must vote to end debate on a measure and move it to a vote.

“This is a defining moment,” Gillibrand said. “Since I first started working to reform military justice in 2013 we have twice been blocked by the filibuster standard of 60 votes, despite having a majority of the Senate in support.”

The bill’s primary aim is to address sexual assault in the military, but covers many other serious crimes, such as murder, manslaughter and child endangerment. According to data from the Department of Defense, the Pentagon estimates that at least 20,000 service members experienced sexual assault in FY2018, the most recent year the data was available. However, of those estimated cases fewer than 600 accused assaulters ever stood court martial by the end of FY2019, according to information provided by Gillibrand.

“For decades, sexual assault in our military has been an uncontrolled epidemic hurting readiness, recruitment and morale,” she said. “This common-sense legislation will ensure that the justice system works for all service members and enact measures to help prevent sexual assault across our armed forces. I am proud to lead my colleagues in the fight to pass this bipartisan legislation — it’s clear we have the momentum to get it done.”

The military justice reform bill would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes by moving the decision to prosecute from the chain of command to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, and provides for several new prevention provisions such as more and better training for commanders and increased physical security measures, while ensuring that commanders still have the ability to provide strong leadership and ensure a successful command climate.

In recent weeks, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former Fort Drum commander, dropped his opposition to the proposed changes in the way military sexual assaults are prosecuted.

According to Gillibrand, the pending bill has the support of 61 senators, including 41 Democrats, 18 Republicans and two Independents, as well as the majority of Senate Armed Services Committee members.

On Thursday night Gillibrand followed up with statistics, newly released by the Department of Defense, which she said suggest having chain of command handle sexual assault claims is not working. The number of such claims continues to steadily increase and break new records, but Gillibrand said the percentage of substantiated allegations that went to trial went down from 71% in 2019 to 61% in 2020. She also said the conviction rate for such cases went down from 3.3% in 2019 to only 1.9% in 2020.

“This year’s report and more than a decade of data on sexual assault in the military shows a clear and disturbing trend–reports of sexual assaults have increased virtually every single year and remain at record highs, while prosecution and conviction rates have declined including a shocking 10% decline in the prosecution rate from last year,” she said.

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