Removing commanders’ authority in military sexual-assault crimes would neither boost sexual-assault reporting nor strengthen a belief that the military justice system is fair, according to a subcommittee report released Thursday.
“A strong majority of subcommittee members agrees the evidence does not support a conclusion that removing authority to convene courts-martial from senior commanders will reduce the incidence of sexual assault or increase reporting of sexual assaults in the Armed Forces,” according to the Role of the Commander subcommittee report.
The subcommittee, which has nine members, was created as part of the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, established by the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
That finding sets most of the members squarely against a proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The New York Democrat has been lobbying her colleagues for months, trying to garner the likely necessary 60 votes to pass legislation that would remove the chain of command’s power to decide whether sexual-assault cases are prosecuted.
It’s a move Pentagon officials and Sen. Claire McCaskill — who has a dueling proposal — have been pushing hard against. Sen. Harry Reid said Monday the Senate would debate sexual-assault legislation by mid-February, but he didn’t specify if the Senate would take up one or both of the proposals. He came out in support of Gillibrand’s bill last November, but other high-profile Democrats including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin have spoken against it.
McCaskill, responding to the report, said the findings “must inform any future debate about alternative proposals.”
Only one of the subcommittee members, Elizabeth Hillman, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, disagreed with the subcommittee’s report. Hillman, in a separate statement, said commanders “are neither essential nor well-suited for their current role in the legal process of criminal prosecution.”
But most of the subcommittee members believe there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that “removing such authority will increase confidence among victims of sexual assault about the fairness of the military justice system or reduce their concerns about possible reprisal for making reports of sexual assault,” according to the report.
Members of Congress have tweaked how the military deals with sexual-assault cases in the past few National Defense Authorization Acts, including requiring new or prospective commanders to undergo sexual-assault prevention and response training, removing a commander’s ability to overturn jury convictions, and requiring a civilian review if a commander decides against prosecuting. And the report suggests that more time is needed to see if such changes can create “meaningful improvements” before making a “systemic” change.