NEWSFLASH: Sen. Levin Weakens Military Sex Assault Bill

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) announced on Tuesday he is replacing a measure proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would have removed military sexual assault crimes from being handled within the military chain of command. Levin’s replacement measure would keep authority on major military crimes with senior officers.

Gillibrand’s measure, part of a defense spending bill, was an attempt to improve the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault within the military by  giving military prosecutors, instead of the accusers’ commanders, authority to decide which cases to try. Opposition to the measure comes from Levin, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the military. Levin’s Senate measure was approved by the Armed Services Committee by a 17-9 vote.

In May, the Department of Defense released a report that showed only 13 percent of sexual assaults in the military are reported and that the number of military sexual assaults have gone up 34.7 percent from the 2010 to 2012 fiscal year.

Hagel defended Levin’s replacement measure by saying,

I don’t personally believe that you can eliminate the command structure in the military from this process because it is the culture. It is the institution. It is the people within that institution that have to fix the problem …

But supporters of Gillibrand’s measure believe that having survivors report assaults to senior officers is neither efficient nor safe. Trina McDonald, a military rape survivor and strong supporter of Gillibrand’s measure, said in a statement,

I know first hand that this is a problem that the military has tried to sweep under the rug for too many years. The actions taken by Chairman Levin today will only make it easier for the military to continue to look the other way and fail to address the epidemic of rape in the military in any meaningful way.

Gillibrand could have the chance to renew her measure this summer, when the defense bill goes to Senate for a final vote. The House is expected to pass a defense bill of its own this week that includes increased punishments for sexual assault crimes and a provision to make it harder for commanders to overturn convictions.

Photo of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) by Flickr user Jeff Simms, used under Creative Commons 2.0


Ponta Abadi, a graduate of the University of Oregon, is a former Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter.