Military Sexual Assault: Legislative Progress and Setbacks

Voices in the veteran community and the media have given rise to the issues in the military justice system of inadequately investigating and prosecuting claims, blaming survivors and pushing them out of the military and denying them benefits. A new movement has formed, sweeping through Congress and lawmakers, but there is still much work to be done. Are you aware of the recent shifts in legislation?

1. The Senate recently passed a bill eliminating the “good soldier” defense, citing military records as a defense if charged with sexual assault, from evidence rules unless a defendant’s military character is directly tied to the alleged assault. The bill is now on to the House.

2. In what was called ‘a huge win for victims of sexual assault,’ Congress approved and the President signed a series of sweeping reforms as part of 2013’s annual defense bill:

  • Commanders have been stripped of the ability to overturn convictions, and will be held accountable under rigorous new standards.
  • Every victim who reports a sexual assault will get their own independent lawyer to protect their rights and fight for their interests – a reform that has no parallel in the civilian justice system.
  • Civilian review is now required if a commander decides against a prosecution in a sexual assault case when a prosecutor wants to go to trial.
  • Dishonorable discharge is now a required minimum sentence for anyone convicted of a sexual assault.
  • It is now a crime for any service member to retaliate against a victim who reports a sexual assault.
  • The pre-trial “Article 32” process, which came under scrutiny following a recent case at the Naval Academy, has been reformed to better protect victims.

Finally, the statute of limitations in these cases has now been eliminated, a particularly important development in a sustained battle against sexual assaults.

3. Unfortunately, Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, which would have removed the chain of command from sexual assaults prosecutions, was derailed in the Senate on a 55-45 vote, with some senators objecting to the measure because commanders would escape accountability and others reasoning that the Pentagon should be given more time to implement new sexual assault requirements in 2013’s annual defense bill.

Megan Zottarelli, Policy Analyst
Megan performs research and analysis of legislation, data, and issues related to veterans such as criminal justice, housing, employment, women’s health, etc. Megan helps to create formal summaries and recommendations to lawmakers and key stakeholders to increase access to services and support for veterans and their families. She is especially interested in criminal justice issues among veterans as well as treatment alternatives to incarceration.