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Military Sex-Assault Reform Bill Fails in Senate

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 07, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Military sexual assault reform took a major blow Thursday, as the U.S. Senate voted down a bill designed to overhaul the way the military handles sexual assault cases.

The bill sought to give power to prosecute military sex assault cases to an independent military prosecutor rather than high ranking officers, but it failed to get the 60 votes necessary to avoid being thrown out, reports Reuters.

What else might this bill have changed in military sexual assault cases?

Military Sex Crimes Still an Issue

The bill, entitled the Military Justice Improvement Act, was intended to address the alarming amount of sexual assault in the military. A May 2013 Pentagon study revealed that approximately 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact went unreported -- with many blaming the current military justice system.

Reuters reports that the bill faced staunch opposition from Pentagon leaders, who worried it would weaken the military chain of command. Supporters of the Military Justice Improvement Act pointed to examples of similar reforms in Canada and Australia, where victims' needs were addressed without jeopardizing the command structure.

Part of the insidious nature of sexual assaults in the military is the pressure on service men and women not to report the attacks. The New York Times reports that the bill's sponsor, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, compares telling superior officers about assault to a girl telling her father that her brother has assaulted her.

Still, a separate bill, the McCaskill-Ayott-Fischer Bill which supports civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a sexual assault case, is proceeding with unanimous support from the Senate.

How Are Cases Reported, Processed Now?

Currently, those who serve in the military have two options when reporting sexual assault: They can either report the crime anonymously (called "restricted reporting") and receive medical and victim services, or they can come forward and make an unrestricted report.

With restricted reporting, no criminal investigation will be required by military or civilian authorities, leaving many assaults potentially unresolved. If an assault is investigated by military authorities, a court-martial can be convened to evaluate the charges against a service member.

However, unlike civilian trials, many of these courts-martial are presided over by senior officers. If an officer is convicted of sexual assault under a court-martial, commanding officers may also dismiss that conviction.

Seeking justice for military sexual assault is an ongoing battle, and a military law attorney can be a great ally in that fight.

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