Senate Passes New Procedures for Prosecuting Military Sexual Assault

5979352182_b8106f1a69_z (1)Having seen the Pentagon report of 26,000 cases of military sexual assault in 2012, with only 10 percent being prosecuted, is the U.S. Congress finally going to take military sexual assault seriously?

There was some good news this week as the Senate unanimously approved a bill proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that would change procedures for prosecuting military sexual assault. The not-so-good news was that the House may not immediately take up the measure—which would, among other things, allow victims to choose whether their case is heard in a civilian or military court and eliminate defendants’ ability to use the “good soldier” defense (which allows them to dodge harsher punishment if they can demonstrate a positive military history). So far House Democrats Tulsi Gabbard and Dan Benishek are sponsoring the bill.

Also, a few days before the successful Senate vote, the body had rejected a bill with even stronger provisions to ensure justice.

The first bill, proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would have taken reports of sexual assault out of the chain of military command (in other words, a system in which soldiers have to report to their commander, who might even be buddies with the accused perpetrator) and straight to a military prosecutor. Gillibrand said the current practice is similar to forcing a woman to tell her father that her brother had assaulted her. But her bill didn’t make it past a vote on cloture, losing 55-45.

The day the bill failed to pass, Gillibrand said:

As painful as today’s vote is, our struggle on behalf of the brave men and women who serve in our military will go on. We owe so much to those who bravely serve our country, and I will never quit on them.

McCaskill’s and Gillibrand’s bill’s held many similarities [PDF]: Both make it a crime to retaliate against a person reporting sexual assault, both remove commanders from their positions if they fail to address sexual assault and both eliminate the “good soldier” defense. The main difference is Gillibrand’s strong support for taking sexual assault prosecutions out of the chain of command.

Gillibrand supported McCaskill’s bill after hers lost, but said that its passage is “not even close” to resolving the problem. Much, much more will be heard about this longstanding issue.


Photo courtesy of Flickr user goarmyphotos licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Lindsey O'Brien is currently studying journalism at Ohio University and interning at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.