WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressman Mike Turner (R-OH) announced Friday that he will endorse landmark bipartisan legislation to reform the military justice system in sexual assault cases. The legislation would remove the decision to prosecute sexual assault from the military chain of command and place it in the hands of a independent senior military prosecutor.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) first introduced the bill in the Senate. Turner will serve as the original House Republican cosponsor of the bill.
“Congressman Turner is a longtime leader in the fight to combat sexual assault in the military and has a proven record of enacting legislation to deliver justice for survivors,” Gillibrand said in a statement from Turner’s office. “This is a truly bipartisan bill and it’s time to get this done.”
Turner lauded Gillibrand for her work on the bill.
“After working across the aisle for more than a decade on substantive reform to combat sexual violence in the military, I’m grateful for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s diligent work on the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act (MJIIPA),” Turner said. “What Senator Gillibrand has accomplished is unusual in Washington — true bipartisan, bicameral legislation.”
Under the current system, the prosecution decision is made by senior military officers, most of whom are not lawyers.
“The military justice system is, in a lot of ways, unchanged since 1775,” said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, which advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military. “Where criminal justice in the civilian world has modernized and professionalized, the military has lagged behind.”
The military is currently losing 80 percent of sexual assault and rape cases, and the Air Force is losing over 30 percent of all felony cases, Christensen said. Very few sexual assault cases make it to trial at all.
According to the annual Department of Defense Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, released May 13, the military received 5,640 reports of sexual assault. Only 255 of those proceeded to a court-martial. Of the cases that went to trial, only 50 resulted in a conviction that required the subject to register as a sex offender.
The numbers have been trending in the wrong direction for some time, according to Christensen.
“What we’ve seen for the past eight years is that the Pentagon has pushed back, saying commanders will provide a solution,” he said, “But every year, the numbers get worse.”
The MJIIPA requires that complex felony cases are handled by military prosecutors who are “specifically trained to prosecute these unique cases,” Turner’s office said.
“Prosecuting complex cases takes a long time to be good at it,” Christensen said. “The decision-making process being done by people who aren’t lawyers is inexcusable in 2021.”
In addition, unit commanders retain the authority to prosecute military-specific offenses under the MJIIPA, and survivors have an opportunity to claim damages if there is evidence of government negligence.
“I suspect this is going to increase confidence in victims to come forward,” Christensen said. “There will be better decisions on what cases will go forward, and better prep on getting cases to trial.”
Turner said when members of the military are asked to put their lives on the line for their country, they “shouldn’t also fear becoming a victim of sexual assault.”
“We owe them more,” Turner said in the statement. “Despite an increased focus on combating sexual assault in our military, this remains a serious issue in our ranks that we have the responsibility to address, and this legislation would take a pivotal step in the long fight for military justice reform.”
The bill has 61 cosponsors, both Republicans and Democrats, in the Senate.
“I am confident that this will pass,” Christensen said. “This is the first time in eight years I’ve been able to say that.”
Turner is a senior House Armed Services Member and co-chair of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Caucus.
Last month, a single sexual assault charge has been referred to general court-martial in the case of Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley, former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The charge includes three specifications of sexual assault under Article 120.
It is unlikely that this new legislation will affect Cooley’s case, as it has already been referred to court-martial, Christensen said.
“However, if this legislation had been passed five years ago, the process would have been much quicker,” he said.
Details regarding the time and place for Cooley’s court martial have not been set, according to a representative of Air Force Materiel Command.
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.