Over Defense Department objections, a Senate panel passed sweeping reforms of sexual assault prosecution Tuesday, including creating a separate command to prosecute serious criminal offices.
By voice vote and with no debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel approved a plan that would remove the chain of command not just from decisions about rape and sexual assault offenses but from any criminal charge where the accused faces a year or more in jail.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the panel’s chairwoman, said the bill “comprehensively addresses the issue of sexual assaults in the military.”
It is unclear if her idea will stand. The full Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to take up the full defense bill Wednesday and is expected to face a number of amendments to change the provisions.
There is strong sentiment among some committee members to side with the Joint Chiefs, who want to keep the military chain of command in charge of decisions about courts-martial and sentencing, while ceding some power so commanders would have to follow minimum sentencing guidelines and could not dismiss or reduce charges after a conviction.
While there is disagreement over having a separate command for prosecution, common themes are taking shape as the House and Senate work on the 2014 defense authorization bill.
For example, there is agreement to modify the discretion of commanders to dismiss charges by eliminating “character” as a reason for doing so.
The Senate panel mentioned only “character” as something that could no longer be considered, while the House Armed Services Committee approved a slightly wider exclusion that also prohibits consideration of an accused’s military service.
Both the House and Senate bills agree to prohibit the convening authority from dismissing or reducing charges after a court-martial conviction and limiting the ability to reduce sentences, something Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has asked Congress to change.
There also is agreement about creating a special victims counsel, who would represent the interests of rape and sexual assault victims through all steps of the legal process. The Air Force has been testing such a program.