Policy change for dealing with sexual assaults in the military is welcome, but may need strengthening - The Buffalo News
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Policy change for dealing with sexual assaults in the military is welcome, but may need strengthening

This do-nothing Congress finally got something done on the staggering problem of sexual assaults in the military. While the solution fell short of the goal, we’ll celebrate what we’ve got. For now.

House and Senate negotiators reached final agreement on a Pentagon policy bill that would strengthen protections for military victims of sexual assault.

Change had to come following the outrage that erupted over a Pentagon report that estimated that while there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military last year, victims reported only 3,374 of them and only about 300 cases went to trial. There were 3,553 more sexual assault complaints reported in the first three quarters of the last fiscal year.

However, more could have been done and that’s where Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., comes in. The junior senator has been dogged in her pursuit of what is right and fair for the victims, and she isn’t going to stop now. Good for her.

Gillibrand wants to remove military commanders from oversight of sexual assault cases. Instead, congressional negotiators have agreed to what supporters are calling an expansive change to policies governing sexual assault.

It is far from the broad changes necessary. Still, it’s an uncomfortable amount of progress for a staid military used to rigidly following the chain of command, even if that meant allowing those who commit sexual assault to go unpunished. The new measure would take one major step by preventing commanding officers from overturning sexual assault verdicts.

New rules would also expand a special victims counsel program for the survivors of sexual assault throughout the military and make retaliation for reporting such assaults a crime. For criminal complaints, including sexual assault, courts of investigation, known as Article 32 hearings, would act more like preliminary hearings looking for probable cause to pursue a court-martial.

Commanders will maintain control over the court-martial process. That fact lessens the impact of the Article 32 change, weakening the effort for substantive reform in military justice.

That’s where Gillibrand comes in. She wants to remove military commanders from oversight of the cases altogether, and intends to push forward with her legislation to remove commanders as a standalone bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada reportedly has assured her a vote. Although passage seems unlikely, the matter deserves a vote.

The seven women on the Senate Armed Services Committee could not agree on the best way to deal with military sexual assaults. The compromise agreed to “represents a huge win for justice in America’s armed forces,” according to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

The compromise will be a huge improvement over the current atmosphere that has allowed such a shameful number of sexual assaults. The question is, will it be enough? Absent a dramatic decrease in assaults, it should not be the final word.

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