Gillibrand’s military justice bill up for a vote

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand will attempt to pass legislation this week targeting a reform of the military justice system.

The Military Justice Improvement Act proposes to take the power of prosecuting crimes, punishable by more than a year in prison, out of the hands of military commanders and shift it to military prosecutors. The bill would not change procedural punishments like disobeying an order.

Those in favor of the bill in the Senate believe it will combat sexual assault cases in the military.

“America is home to the world’s best and brightest, brave men and women who join the armed services for all the right reasons – to serve our country, defend all that we hold sacred,” said Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “But too often, these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not off on some far-away battlefield, but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence.”

Gillibrand’s office said she is optimistic the bill will pass in the Senate, where it has 53 senators offering their support. John Walsh, a newly appointed Democratic senator from Montana, has said he would vote in favor of the bill. Walsh is the first Iraq war veteran to serve in the Senate.

In the House it is less clear if the bill will pass. Dan Benishek, a Republican of Michigan, is the lead sponsor of a similar bill, which has 70 co-sponsors.

Greg Jacob is the policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network, a human rights organization ran by women veterans. He said Gillibrand is leading on the issue.

“She has been the champion on the Senate side,” Jacob said.

The politics behind the scenes are not what most people expect, he said. The vote is not splitting by party or by gender.

“It’s breaking along seniority lines,” Jacob said. “The junior senators are looking at this with fresh eyes.”

Critics of the bill believe stripping commanders of the power to administer punishment will hurt the military’s ability to function.

Jacob, on the other hand, believes changes to the military’s justice system are long overdue.

“It will put the right people in charge,” Jacob said. “Military commanders are not trained lawyers.”

Jacob, a former Marine commander of 10 years, said the current military justice system where soldiers report a crime up their chain of command, is especially inadequate for sexual assault victims.

Sexual assaults are on the rise in the military as women join the combat ranks. According to a 2012 report by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assaults occurred in 2012. That is a 37 percent increase from 2011. Of the female victims, 50 percent said they did not report the crime because they believed that nothing would be done with their reports.

“Soldiers who are abused during their service are often afraid of retaliation, or have seen people go through the process that hasn’t worked,” Jacob said. “They think nothing bad will happen to the perpetrators.

“There is a lack of confidence to report it up the chain of command. This bill will restore the faith of our service members.”

(Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the Senate is expected to take up the military justice bill this week, not next week.)