Sweeping changes to how sexual assaults and other serious crimes are handled by military prosecutors will begin to go into effect on Friday, five months ahead of the deadline mandated by Congress for the reforms.
President Joe Biden is scheduled to sign an executive order on Friday formalizing rules surrounding the military’s Offices of Special Trial Counsel, independent prosecutors who will now decide whether to prosecute certain offenses including as sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and murder.
The new rules will take those decisions out of the hands of the military chain of command and create a more specialized cadre of legal experts to handle the military’s most complicated criminal charges. Advocates have argued for years that the change will strengthen troops’ faith in the military justice system, ensuring that serious offenses are handled by lawyers who are fully trained for those cases.
Congress mandated the changes as part of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had been a key figure behind the reforms, originally designed to focus just on sexual misconduct crimes.
Senior White House officials said Biden pushed for military officials to implement the changes well ahead of the December 2023 deadline mandated in the legislation because of the importance of the topic.
The changes will “reform the court-martial sentencing system to promote uniformity and fairness … and reduce disparities in sentencing in cases of rape and sexual assault,” officials said.
Friday’s executive order will allow special counsel to assume prosecutorial authority by the end of this year for sexual assault, domestic violence and related cases. Beginning Jan. 1, 2025, those independent prosecutors will expand to sexual harassment cases and other crimes.
Military officials have spent recent years identifying candidates for the assignments and beginning training for them. Unlike other military assignments, personnel with the Offices of Special Trial Counsel will not receive frequent reassignments, to ensure they can see through criminal prosecutions that can take years to complete.
Lesser offenses will still be handled by traditional military legal offices, and fall under the purview of local commanders for final punishment.
Military officials reported more than 8,900 cases of sexual assault across the services in 2022, a slight increase from the year before.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.