Biden Presses to Change Military Sex-Assault Prosecutions (1)

  • White House will work with Congress on legislative changes
  • New judicial system may take until 2023 to go into effect

(Updates with Biden statement in fourth paragraph.)

The Biden administration will work with Congress to recommend changes to how the military justice system handles sex-related crimes.

President Joe Biden has thrown his support for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s decision to endorse sweeping changes to the military’s approach that remove the decision to prosecute from the military’s chain of command, according to senior administration officials who asked not to be named.

The administration’s position represents a major turnabout after the Pentagon has opposed changes for years—even as leaders have struggled with an increase in sexual assault and harassment cases.

“For as long as we have abhorred this scourge, the statistics and the stories have grown worse,” Biden said in a statement Friday. “We need concrete actions that fundamentally change the way we handle military sexual assault and that make it clear that these crimes will not be minimized or dismissed.”

The White House wants to see changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice written into law this year. The changes would take until 2023 to put in place, one senior official said, because it takes time to set up the new system with special victims’ prosecutors reporting outside of the military chain of command.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
President Joe Biden salutes along with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin before speaking at the National Memorial Day Observance at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, on May 31, 2021.

Independent Commission

Austin last month announced his support for removing the prosecution of sex-related crimes from the U.S. military’s chain of command, a key demand by some members of Congress and advocates for victims who say commanders too often protect alleged wrongdoers from prosecution.

Austin Reverses Pentagon Stand on Sexual Assault Prosecution

Austin offered his support after receiving a report by an advisory commission that began investigating the matter earlier this year. He briefed Biden on the report and his decision, and the president supports the approach, the senior administration officials said.

“It provides us real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military,” Austin said in a statement at the time.

The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military found that the military justice system isn’t well equipped to handle sensitive cases such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.

It also found critical deficiencies in the workforce across the military services that is able to prosecute such cases, including lack of experience and lack of specialization—key elements to addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment, the administration officials said. The problem is most visible in the almost complete lack of a prevention workforce, they added.

The commission also rejects the notion that shifting legal decisions about prosecution from military commanders to prosecutors diminishes the role of those commanders, the officials said.

Pressure in Congress

Even though Austin’s position represents a reversal for the Pentagon, it may no longer be enough to quell debate in Congress.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill (S. 1520) that would revamp how the armed forces prosecutes all serious offenses, not only sexual assault, by taking away commanders’ authority over whether to send cases to trial. Independent military prosecutors would make such decisions.

Changes Must Be Made for Major Crimes in Military, Senator Says

Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio) introduced a similar measure (H.R. 4104) in the U.S. House.

Gillibrand, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, has been rebuffed repeatedly by Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a fellow Democrat, and Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican, when she’s tried to bring up her legislation for a vote in the Senate. Gillibrand has bipartisan support from two-thirds of the Senate for her bill.

Inhofe last month released letters from the military service chiefs, who contend that taking major crimes out of the chain of command could backfire on prevention efforts.

To contact the reporters on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com
Justin Sink (Bloomberg News) in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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