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Military justice overhaul could be limited to rapes, sex assaults

Nov. 13, 2013 - 08:19PM   |  
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Supporters of a bipartisan Senate plan to reduce the influence of the military chain of command in crime investigations, prosecutions and sentencings are willing to make a deal to limit their initiative to rape and sexual assault cases if that’s what it takes to get the measure passed.

The Military Justice Improvement Act, introduced in May, has been aimed since its inception at doing something about the low prosecution rate of rape and assault cases.

Victim advocates attribute that to a criminal justice system that often puts the victim on trial and has allowed commanders to reduce sentences. There were 3,374 rape and sexual assault cases reported in 2012, although a Defense Department survey showed there could have been as many as 26,000 incidents. Of the reported cases, only 302 were brought to trial.

The legislation, however, covers all crimes that are not a specific military nature — such as being absent without leave or failing to obey orders — in an effort to avoid creating two side-by-side justice systems.

The original reason for covering all serious crimes was the belief that improper command influence on major cases probably is not limited just to sex crimes, and because creating an independent judicial command to prosecute only sex-related cases did not seem a wise use of military resources.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the majority of the Senate now supports her plan, despite opposition from defense and service leaders, but she is willing to reduce the scope to only sex crimes if she is forced to find 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles.

Opponents of her plan, led by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Ill., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have discussed requiring a 60-vote threshold to take up the bill.

“We prefer our bill in its original form,” Gillibrand told the Associated Press.

“This is just in case we have to do the 60 votes,” added Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as she and other supporters of the bill spoke with the wire service.

Levin has not indicated whether he would support a narrower bill, but he has backed the Joint Chiefs in arguing it would be wrong to take the chain of command out of decisions about investigation and prosecution of any crimes. Levin and military leaders have supported reforms limiting the power of commanders to amend convictions or sentences after a court-martial.

Even in reduced scope, the bill still would be “an excellent first step,” Gillibrand said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a cosponsor of the broader reform effort, said a bill that treats sex crimes differently from other crimes is “perfectly acceptable” and is widely used by the civilian criminal justice system.

Debate on Gillibrand’s legislation is expected when she offers it as an amendment to the 2014 defense authorization bill, a military policy measure the Senate could start debating on Thursday. A vote on Gillibrand’s amendment is not expected until next week.

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