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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reacted swiftly to the news that the Pentagon’s estimated number of sexual assaults jumped 35 percent, with several introducing legislation in the House and Senate to protect victims and improve response following report of an incident.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services personnel panel, plans to introduce legislation next week that would eliminate a commander’s authority to overturn rulings in cases of sexual assault.
“Despite pledges of zero tolerance from the military and a number of positive steps that were taken last year by the [Senate] Armed Services Committee, this report provides troubling evidence that we are going in the wrong direction,” Gillibrand said Tuesday.
Gillibrand’s legislation would add “real reform” she said, taking “decision-making over these cases outside the chain of command.”
“This is the step necessary to create real accountability for assailants and justice for victims,” Gillibrand said.
After the Pentagon’s press briefing on the report, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., were on the Senate floor introducing legislation that would amend Pentagon policies and create new laws to help victims and reduce the number of assaults.
Murray and Ayotte’s bill, the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act, would guarantee victims access to an advocacy lawyer to guide them through the reporting, investigation and criminal law process following an allegation.
It also would prohibit instructors from having a sexual relationship with new service members for at least 30 days following completion of basic training and would ensure that National Guard and Reserve members have access to a sexual assault response coordinator at all times.
The bill also proposes to change the UCMJ to ensure that sexual assault cases are referred to general court martial when filed or to the next superior competent authority if a conflict of interest exists within the victim’s or perpetrator’s chain of command.
“While I applaud recent efforts by the Department of Defense to turn the tide on this mounting crisis, we must do more to root out the culture that fosters this behavior and provide substantive assistance to those who face these tragedies alone,” Murray said.
“The United States continues to have the best military in the world. … But when a service member fails to live up to our values and commits sexual assault, we must ensure the victims have the support they need and the perpetrators face justice,” Ayotte said.
According to Murray’s office, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, will introduce similar legislation in the House in the coming weeks.
In the House, Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., also introduced a bill to strengthen protections for whistleblowers who report sexual assault crimes.
The bill would clarify that victims of sexual crimes are protected from punishment for reporting sexual assault, with the same rights as military whistleblowers.
“It is absolutely inexcusable that military sexual violence has reached epidemic levels. The prevalence of sexual assault inside the military is a stain on its record of being the greatest force for good the world has ever known,” Walorski said.
“Disturbingly, 62 percent of the women who experienced and reported sexual assault to DoD authorities felt some form of social, administrative or professional retaliation,” Sanchez said. “This reflects a terrible problem of culture and climate in our ranks, one that requires action — not just rhetoric — from Congress and the military.”
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