In 2012, Congresswoman Speier visited the Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune, where she witnessed a sexual assault case in the final stages of a court-martial. What she witnessed appalled her. The shockingly perverse treatment of the victim, inadequately trained prosecutors, and outdated and ineffective laws revealed that there was little “justice” in the military justice system for survivors.
Military sexual violence and trauma are among the most debilitating and toxic problems confronting our nation’s armed forces and service academies. Sexual assault dehumanizes survivors and degrades operational readiness, but a broken criminal justice system can also be traumatizing and dangerous. In 2018, nearly 20,500 servicemembers indicated they suffered from some type of sexual assault, a nearly 40 percent increase from 2016. Only 38 percent came forward to report the crimes, a decrease from 41 percent in 2016. These shameful results occurred in spite of the military spending over $200 million to address the problem over the last decade.
Sexual assault committed by servicemembers against their peers or subordinates represents a complete and utter breakdown of respect and dignity. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) isolates survivors from their units and erodes the core principles of good order and discipline, and faithful service that the military so often professes to uphold. As the military continues to fail in protecting its members, Congress must diligently exercise its oversight and leadership to stamp out military sexual violence.
For the past decade, Congresswoman Speier has led the crusade to improve military sexual assault prevention and response. As a lifelong champion of gender equality and freedom from violence, Congresswoman Speier redoubled her efforts to combatting sexual assault in the military. She demanded a spot on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Military Personnel Subcommittee. Prior to 2011, Congress had only held 18 hearings on sexual assault in the military in the previous 16 years. In 2019 alone, Congress has already held four hearings related to military sexual assault, due in large part to Congresswoman Speier’s work on this issue. She has long believed that a key way to combat military sexual trauma is eliminating commanders’ authority to determine whether to prosecute sexual assault cases. This power, unique to the military system, in which a unit commander determines what crimes to prosecute despite not being a trained lawyer and having potential biases toward the parties in question decreases confidence in the military justice system and discourages survivors from coming forward to report crimes.
Congresswoman Speier has also overseen and implemented monumental legislative reforms in this area with many aimed at correcting a broken military justice system. These include:
- An overhaul of the Article 32 process – a preliminary hearing designed to review evidence for a trial in a manner similar to a Grand Jury – after a Navy Midshipmen survivor was subjected to 30 hours of degrading questions by the defense counsel during an Article 32 hearing in 2013. The reforms gave victims the right to appear or decline to participate in an Article 32 hearing and afforded survivors who participated in the hearing’s mental health and Rape Shield protections, which prevent defense counsel from asking survivors about past sexual behavior.
- Before the 2013 reforms, commanders were required to consider the Good Military Character of the accused when deciding whether to prosecute. In 2014, Congress removed “good military character” as a potential defense, ensuring offenders weren’t let off the hook for simply being well-liked or good at their job.
- Previously, the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s (UCMJ) Article 60 allowed convening authorities to overturn verdicts and reduce sentences for any reason or without a reason. Congresswoman Speier helped strip this authority away after many survivors saw their justice cast aside after personal or professional military relationships intervened in the judicial process.
- In the wake of nude or intimate images, as well as personal information, shared in the Marines United Facebook group, Congresswoman Speier introduced and passed a UCMJ article criminalizing the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images.
In the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congresswoman Speier prioritized preventing and addressing military sexual violence. She successfully included numerous provisions that include:
- A provision that would redefine unlawful command influence in order to prevent appeals courts from needlessly overturning sexual assault convictions.
- An expansion of the Special Victims’ Counsel Program to afford more attorneys, paralegals, and resources for victims, as well as the creation of legal counsel for domestic violence victims.
- Requiring the services to craft advisory sentencing guidelines for determining criminal punishment, similar to the guidelines used in the federal system. The absence of guidelines in the military system creates unjust discrepancies between sentences for similar crimes.