Sen. Claire McCaskill's Military Anti-Sexual Assault Bill Passes the Senate [Lady Bits]

The past year has seen unprecedented reforms in the way the military handles sexual assault cases. At the start of 2014, President Obama ordered a review of the military’s sexual assault response practices, and gave them a year to take meaningful steps to fix the problem. The latest defense bill included meaningful reforms to the military’s sexual assault policies, most notably taking away commanders’ ability to overturn jury convictions of sexual assault and making it illegal to retaliate against victims for reporting.
None of these reforms would have been possible if it weren’t for the brave survivors who have come forward in increasing numbers to tell their stories. But the political action is largely the result of a yearlong campaign led by the women of the senate to stem the military’s sexual assault epidemic. The two women at the forefront of this fight have been Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Yesterday saw another victory, as an anti-sexual assault bill spearheaded by Sen. McCaskill passed in the Senate. McCaskill’s bill was seen as something of a rival to a bill pushed by Gillibrand, the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). Last week, in a disappointing defeat, the MJIA failed in the Senate. The main component of the MJIA that differentiated it from McCaskill’s bill is that it would have taken sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command and put them into civilian courts. As it stands, military commanders get to decide whether or not to pursue disciplinary action in sexual assault cases.
According to Gillibrand and many activists, forcing victims to report their attacks to commanding officers decreases the likelihood that soldiers will report their assaults. On top of the shame and embarrassment many survivors feel already, the fact that military units often become so close can make disclosure especially awkward. Commanding officers, who often know both the victim and perpetrator very well, may not make the most impartial decisions.
This issue of chain of command versus civilian courts was what divided many Senators. Fortunately, though McCaskill’s bill does not take decisions out of the chain of command, if it passes in the House and is signed into law, it will usher in significant changes. Currently, in military disciplinary proceedings, attackers’ good military records can be used in their defense. This is known as the “good soldier” defense. McCaskill’s bill would eliminate the use of military record unless it is directly tied to the crime.
The bill also extends the rules detailed in the new defense bill – that commanders can’t overturn sexual assault convictions and that it’s illegal to retaliate against victims – to students in military service academies. McCaskill’s bill also allows victims to use a confidential process to appeal any discharge or suspension that results from their cases.
It will always be difficult to monitor and regulate the military’s handling of sexual assault cases unless those decisions are removed entirely from the change of command. However, some change is better than none, especially in this case. In a recent survey, 50% of female victims of sexual assault in the military said they didn’t report their cases because they thought nothing would happen with them. 1 in 5 female service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military. Change has been a long time coming.
[Lead image via]

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