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Lawmakers Push for Changes in Military Sexual Assault Prosecutions

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and a team of bipartisan lawmakers kicked off a two-week push yesterday to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Act will move the decision of whether to prosecute a crime out of the chain of command and give it to independent military prosecutors.

MJIA attempts to erase the systemic obstacles that victims of sexual assault in the military face due to the "clear bias and inherent conflicts of interest posed by the military chain of command's current sole decision-making power over whether cases move forward to a trial." According to the 2012 SAPRO report released by the Defense Department, there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and assault that year, but only 3,553 were reported. Twenty-five percent of women and 27 percent of men who experienced unwanted sexual contact reported that the offender was someone in their military chain of command.

Fifty percent of women said they did not report unwanted sexual contact because they thought nothing would be done. "Too often, cases of sexual assault go unreported out of fear of retribution or that nothing will be done - this bill would increase confidence in the military judicial system," said Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

NDAA is expected to receive a vote before Thanksgiving recess. While the Pentagon heavily opposes the amendment, 46 senators have already expressed public support for the bill.

Another bill recently introduced aims to amend Article 32 proceedings - a pre-trial investigation before a case can even be referred to a general court-martial. Article 32 proceedings can be re-victimizing for victims of sexual assault, who may be forced to answer accusatory questions throughout, like the rape victim at the Naval Academy who had to undergo 30 hours of questioning. The amendment aims to limit the scope of the proceedings, bar unwarranted questioning, prevent crime victims from being forced to testify, and require the proceedings to be recorded and made available to all involved parties. These changes will bring the proceedings more in line with the conduct of preliminary hearings under rule 5.1 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

"There is simply no reason that victims of military sexual assault should have to endure vicious and invasive questioning during a marathon, pre-trial interrogation that has no parallel in the civilian world," said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Media Resources: Senator Barbara Boxer's Press Releases 11/5/13, 11/6/13; The New York Times 11/7/13; RH Reality Check 11/7/13; Feminist Newswire 9/3/13

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