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Senate clears military sex assault prosecution bill

by BRIANNA SICILIANO Photo/Video Editor

The Senate unanimously approved a bill late Monday, March 10, making big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault.

On a vote of 97 to 0, the Senate rallied behind a bipartisan plan crafted by three female senators – Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska – that would force a half-dozen changes to combat the widely-spreading problem of rape and sexual offenses.

“Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare — but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we’ve achieved over the past year in the military justice system,” McCaskill said after the vote.

This unanimous support was very different from the previous week where senators blocked legislation that would have dramatically altered the way serious crimes in the military, like sexual assaults and rape, are handled.

The newly-approved bill will now go to the House for consideration.

McCaskill said the changes adopted Monday, which are designed to support a series of similar reforms adopted last year, mean the U.S. military has “one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world.”

The new bill would give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are litigated in the military or civilian system. They would be able to establish a confidential process, allowing alleged victims to challenge their separation – or discharge – from the military. In addition, the bill would increase the accountability of commanders and extend all changes related to sexual assault cases to the service academies.

In cases where a prosecutor wanted to move ahead with a case but a commander disagreed, the civilian service secretary would have the final say in the matter.

“It should not have taken this long for a bill like this to be proposed and passed, but I am glad that it finally will be a law. Military people should not be able to sexually assault citizens and get away with it,” said sophomore Danny Nasser.

For months, the Missouri Democrat and former prosecutor (McCaskill) were locked in battle with fellow Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York over how to best reform sex assault prosecutions in the military.

There has been a steep rise in reported cases of sexual assault in recent years. In 2012 alone, 26,000 incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact were reported according to a Pentagon study.

Gillibrand’s proposal, which was supported by a majority of senators but fell five votes shy of the 60 votes it needed to pass, would have removed commanders from deciding whether their subordinates should be prosecuted, leaving those decisions to military prosecutors.

The idea proposed by Gillibrand was opposed by the Pentagon on the grounds that it would weaken command authority.

The bill approved Monday would largely disallow the so-called “good soldier” defense, which permits defendants to enter evidence of their good military character at trial to make the charges against them less severe.

The major reforms that became laws last year include: removing the authority of commanders to overturn convictions, providing attorneys to victims, making it a crime to retaliate against a victim, and requiring a dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sexual assault.

“This reform will show how equal American citizens truly are, no matter who the person may be,” said an anonymous junior.

What do you think about the new bill and its outcome?

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