“They are both against my bill, and they would like to kill it in committee,” Ms. Gillibrand told The Times recently.
If this happens, it will be a disservice to the country.
No one seriously disputes that the U.S. military has a sexual assault problem. According to the Defense Department’s 2018 report on the subject, in fiscal year 2018, an estimated 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped, including 13,000 women and 7,500 men. Only a tiny fraction of reported cases result in a conviction. That leads to lower confidence in the military justice system for the all-volunteer force. Many incidents go unreported altogether, which is unsurprising considering that “64 percent of women who reported a sexual assault face retaliation,” according to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
The military has long argued that removing prosecutorial decisions from the chain of command would undermine commanders’ authority and harm the services. But that claim doesn’t withstand much serious scrutiny. Moreover, defense officials have repeatedly pledged to deal with the problem, but their efforts thus far have not curbed it.
The Defense Department’s 2018 report on sexual assault said that the estimated number of service members who experienced sexual assault within the year before being surveyed rose to 20,500 in that fiscal year from around 14,900 in fiscal year 2016. The number of reported incidents of sexual assault that occurred during military service rose in that period as well, to 6,053 from 4,794. The percentage of victimized service members who chose to report an incident, though, declined slightly, to 30 percent from 32 percent.
The case for reform received tragic support last year following the April murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén by another soldier at the Army’s Fort Hood. Investigators learned that, unrelated to her death, Ms. Guillén had endured harassment by her supervisor, which unit leaders had failed to address despite the problem being repeatedly reported. The base in general was found to have a command climate “permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault.” The national attention spotlighted how the existing system had failed Ms. Guillén.
While sexual assault is the focus of the reform push, supporters of Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal say that reforming the military justice system more broadly will make it fairer and less prone to bias — and help address existing racial disparities in prosecutions and convictions. They warn that singling out sexual assault would establish a “pink court,” effectively creating a two-tiered justice system and further stigmatizing victims.
Advocates also point out that many U.S. allies, including Israel, Britain and Canada, have already made similar changes to their military justice systems.