President Obama issued a call on Friday for a one-year review of how the military handles sexual assault cases. It was greeted with cautious optimism from victims’ advocates in Congress, who said that more urgent reform is still needed.
Obama said he has instructed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to report to him by December 1, 2014 with a “full-scale review of their progress” on improving sexual assault prevention and response. If he is not satisfied with that progress, Obama said in a statement, then his administration “will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks.”
Obama specifically praised Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) for calling attention to the urgent need for reform, and for contributing to the reforms that are in this year’s defense bill.
But the defense bill did not include the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), the reform Gillibrand and other victims’ advocates say is most urgently needed—letting an independent prosecutor, not military commanders, decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases. To that end, Gillibrand introduced MJIA as a stand-alone bill to be voted on next year.
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Both Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), who sponsored a companion bill, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act), that was reintroduced in the House in April, and Gillibrand said Friday that they looked forward to working with the president and defense secretary on the issue, but that they would keep fighting to remove prosecutions from the chain of command.
“I do not want to wait another year to enact the one reform survivors have asked for in removing commanders with no legal training and conflicts of interest from the decision of whether or not to prosecute a rape or sexual assault,” Gillibrand said in a statement.
“The president made it clear that he demands a fair and just military judicial system for service members where punishments fit the crime,” said Speier. “I believe that this requires leaving legal decisions to legal experts.”