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Begich Votes to Protect Victims of Sexual Assault in the Military


Says Bill is a Step Forward but Need Real Justice for Victims

Calling it a good first step to address sexual assault in the military, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich today voted to strengthen protections for military members who are victims of sexual assault through more accountability within the chain of command.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), passed the Senate on a vote of 97-0.  It would provide victims of sexual assault with a Special Victims Counsel. The bill also requires additional review of commander decisions to not refer charges of certain sexual offenses to trial and a review by a staff judge advocate of cases not referred to court martial. 

Begich was disappointed, however, that a second and stronger bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), failed to break a 60-vote filibuster threshold by a vote of 55-45 last Thursday. The MJIA was sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and co-sponsored by Begich.

“There is no place for sexual assault in our military, period,” said Begich. “I’m glad we took steps today to help victims and increase accountability but I am disappointed that we didn’t go further. We need to make sure those who commit sexual assault in our military are prosecuted in an objective and unbiased justice system.  Today’s bill is an improvement but we must still do more to prevent and address sexual assault in the military. I will continue to advocate and fight for victims.”

The MJLA would have strengthened prosecution of sexual assault crimes in the military by taking away the authority of commanders to overturn or lessen court-martial verdicts in sexual assault cases, requiring justification for changes in court-martial sentences by a commander.  It also would have removed the military chain-of-command from determining whether sexual assault cases are prosecuted. The bill would have moved the decision to any crime punishable by one year or more in confinement to independent, trained professional military prosecutors.

The McCaskill legislation that passed today would:

  • Bring objectivity, review and oversight outside the chain of command to the process by including a review by a senior trial counsel in addition to the requirement of a review of commander decisions to not refer charges of certain sexual offenses to trial, and a review of cases not referred to court martial, by a staff judge advocate.

  • Modify Military Rules of Evidence to prevent defendants from using “good military character” unless it is directly relevant to an element of the alleged crime.

  • Require Special Victims Counsels to advise victims of the advantages and disadvantages of a case being prosecuted in a civilian or military justice system.

  • Allow sexual assault victims to challenge their discharge or separation from service in order to account for possible retaliation.

  • Strengthen the role of the prosecutor in advising commanders on going to court-martial by allowing the case to come up for a review to the civilian service secretary.

  • Strengthen evaluations for commanding officers and the command climate they establish as it relates to allegations of sexual assault. The bill also evaluates the way victims of crimes are treated within the unit following those reports.

  • Make certain that changes in the National Defense Authorization Act related to sexual assault prevention and response apply also to the military service academies.

Begich is a strong supporter of efforts to prevent sexual assault and to help victims of sexual assault—especially in the military.  He most recently co-sponsored the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act as well as the The Ruth Moore Act of 2013, which would make disability benefits available for women veterans if they are suffering from PTSD or depression following a military-related sexual assault. Provisions of the Ruth Moore Act became law in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Begich is also a co-sponsor of the Defense STRONG Act, which would strengthen protections for military assault victims to ensure crimes are reported without fear of retribution.  Begich also sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last May urging the Department of Defense to address the problem of sexual assault in the military by enacting minimum sentences for sexual assault crimes.

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