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Roadblocks in Senate efforts to reform military justice system: NPR

US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (R), chats with US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and US Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) following a press conference on 29 April 2021 on military justice Law on improving and increasing prevention.

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Roadblocks in Senate efforts to reform military justice system: NPR

US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (R), chats with US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and US Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) following a press conference on 29 April 2021 on military justice Law on improving and increasing prevention.

Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y., leads a bipartisan coalition of more than 60 Senators and House Members to urge Congressional leaders to maintain significant reforms on how the military prosecutes serious crimes, such as sexual assault, in this year’s defense bill. .

In their Tuesday letter, Gillibrand and others noted that it would be “scandalous” to remove the sweeping legislation, known as the Improving Military Justice and Increasing Prevention Act, from the project. defense law.

“Sexual assault in the military is a serious concern and demands a real solution, not a watered-down provision slipped into the final bill behind closed doors,” said Gillibrand, chairman of the Senate Armed Forces personnel subcommittee . in a report.

The proposal would keep serious crimes under military surveillance, but allow such cases to be handled by criminal justice lawyers with the relevant expertise rather than by commanders who often lack legal training. The military justice reform effort has 66 cosponsors in the Senate, 220 in the House, and significant support from major veterans groups.

And while much of the focus has been on sex crimes, Gillibrand and his supporters have said this should apply to all major crimes, such as murder, manslaughter and child pornography.

“This is the only reform that will provide true independence to prosecutors in the military justice system and is essential to ensure that victims, defendants and the public all have full confidence in the military justice process,” Gillibrand said on Tuesday. .

Defense policy bill stagnates in Senate

Gillibrand’s military justice reform legislation is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, passed by a Senate committee earlier this year. However, the version of the NDAA passed by the House does not include the general general provisions that were part of the Gillibrand proposal, although several key members of the House, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., And Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Supporting reform.

Ultimately, if the defense bill passes the Senate, the final version will be worked out in a conference committee, setting up a fight for justice reforms in this year’s annual legislation.

“Putting serious criminal cases in the hands of independent military prosecutors is common sense reform that will professionalize our military justice system,” the members wrote in their letter Tuesday. “The consensus among experts is that this reform will improve the system.”

On Monday night, the Senate attempted to push forward the annual defense bill after hitting a stumbling block ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, with Republicans opposing an agreement on which amendments would be picked up for the legislation.

However, the plan failed to achieve the 60 votes needed in the equally divided chamber to move forward. This left Senate leaders with new challenges in reaching a comprehensive deal to ultimately vote on the Defense Bill, which has been passed every year for the past six decades.

Months of effort in preparation

Earlier this year, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the military justice provision, giving Gillibrand a major victory.

For weeks this summer, Gillibrand openly argued in the Senate with fellow Democrat, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island, to get his measure approved. In July, the two men issued a joint statement welcoming a new deal.

Over the past week, a coalition of veterans groups, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, AMVETS, the Service Women Action Network and the American Legion, also wrote to congressional leaders urging them to to keep intact the provisions of the justice plan. Additionally, 29 state attorneys general requested the same in another letter earlier this month.

The proposal had the support of key Republicans, such as Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, two key figures in the effort.

Traditionally, the Defense Authorization Bill enjoys broad bipartisan support, but the overhaul of the way the military handles crimes has encountered constant objections from Pentagon leaders and key members. of Congress since its introduction eight years ago.

However, much of that dynamic changed after Gillibrand joined forces with Ernst, a sexual assault survivor before becoming a veteran combat company commander. Ernst and others have stressed the need for radical change, as statistics show sexual assault crimes are rising in the ranks despite further legislative fixes.

“We are bonded and determined,” Ernst told NPR in May.

It was a game-changer as a new wave of former holdouts joined forces with the duo to become co-sponsors, giving the bill the 60 votes needed to get its passage in the Senate.

Supporters said the military would continue to see the services plagued with prosecution problems without the plan. They also noted that only a third of victims of sexual assault in the military are willing to report their crimes, another indicator of the difficulties facing prosecutions for such crimes.

“This shows a clear lack of confidence in the ability of the current system to be impartial and deliver justice without reprisal,” they said. “The only way for us to reassure victims that they will benefit from an impartial review of their case is to make experienced judge advocates the convening authority in their case. ”

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