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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Military gets a year to show progress on sexual assaults

Tuesday, December 31, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:10 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The way the military handles sexual assault cases got needed reform this month. This was progress, but it needed a complete overhaul.

Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill thinks otherwise, at least on one aspect of the issue — whether to take prosecutions out of the chains of command in the military and put them into the hands of independent prosecutors.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is the leading proponent of a sweeping overhaul of the military’s justice system, essentially established during World War II. She wants to put independent prosecutors on the sexual assault and rape case.

Both Ms. McCaskill and Ms. Gillibrand deserve credit for championing an issue that many in Washington, D.C., wish would just go away. Their efforts brought the issue to the point where it was a significant part of the annual defense policy bill passed in the Senate on Dec. 19.

The legislation contained language preferred by Ms. McCaskill and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal was deemed too radical for Senate passage.

Sexual assaults are a huge problem in the military, with the Pentagon estimating there were 26,000 assaults last year, of which only 3,400 were reported. The Associated Press said Friday that reports are up this year, with more than 5,000 filed during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

The measure that passed is historic. It contains provisions to end the statute of limitations for sexual assault or rape; bar military commanders from overturning jury convictions in such cases; make it a crime to retaliate against people who report such crimes; mandate the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of such crimes; and give civilian defense officials more control over prosecutions.

More reforms possible

Following the bill’s passage, President Barack Obama gave the military a one-year deadline to demonstrate substantial progress combating sexual assaults in the ranks. He threatened to consider additional reforms if the progress does not meet his expectations.

Supporters say it is the most extensive rewrite of the Uniform Code of Military Justice since the armed forces were integrated in 1948 and the most obvious change since the ban on openly gay troops ended in 2010.

Ms. McCaskill praised the president for his charge to military leaders. She agreed that the reforms should be given a year to see whether they succeed.

“The president should be commended for treating this scourge with the seriousness it deserves and for fully backing the historic, comprehensive reforms we pushed across the finish line last night,” she said.

The issue of taking prosecutions away from the military chain of command still lingers. Ms. McCaskill reportedly was the only one of the 16 Democratic women in the Senate who opposed this more drastic overhaul.

Ms. McCaskill argued that the measure that she and Mr. Levin advocated will result in more and better prosecutions. It’s also more palatable to military commanders, although Ms. McCaskill has not used that reason to support her position.

Justice uncertain

Despite her unwavering support for the victims, Ms. McCaskill has been castigated by some women’s rights groups for wanting to leave prosecutions within the chain of command.

Ms. Gillibrand says that too often commanders ignore allegations and that victims who report attacks find that their careers suffer. Ms. Gillibrand says victims have asked to have the prosecutions removed from the chain of command because they simply do not trust that justice will be delivered otherwise.

Ms. McCaskill’s hard work and concern for victims cannot be questioned, but taking decisions out of the chain of command would have been the better way to go. It may come to that if, in the next year, the military doesn’t show the progress that Mr. Obama has demanded.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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