WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yesterday, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) offered crucial amendments to the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), seeking to fundamentally reform how sexual assault cases are handled in the military. In particular, her chain of command amendment had bi-partisan support of 134 members, a number unusually high for an amendment. Republican leadership blocked debate of the amendment on the House floor.

“It’s indefensible that some of my colleagues in the House are not committed to even discussing such a serious issue on behalf of the growing number of sexual assault victims in the military. If opponents of this idea are so certain that it’s a bad idea, why don’t they welcome this debate? The chain of command issue needs to be addressed in order to restore confidence in the legal structure of our Armed Forces. Our allies, countries like the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Israel, have all taken reporting criminal cases such as these out of the chain of command. Until we fix the systemic problems in handling these criminal acts, we won’t change what needs to be changed, and we can’t protect those who need to be protected.”

Currently, the military system of justice relies on a commander, most with no legal training, to make the legal decision of whether or not to prosecute an individual and what to charge them with. Under the Congresswoman’s chain of command amendment, the Chief Prosecutor of each service would make the decision of whether to move forward with charges related to criminal activities such as sexual assault. The Chief Prosecutor would give a binding recommendation to the commanding officer to carry out their legal recommendation.

Five of Congresswoman Speier’s amendments to address sexual assault did pass previously in the House Armed Services Committee and are in the FY14 NDAA, including amendments that:

•    strip commanders of their ability to reduce sentences for those convicted of sexual assault.

•    require all brigades in our military to have an individual who is a certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner to care for victims of sexual assault and have the skills to administer rape kits.

•    preclude a convening authority from not charging an individual of rape or sexual assault based on the good military character of the individual. In the past, it has been common for commanders to not charge assailants or offer non-judicial punishment to them because they were “good soldiers.”  

•    require the DOD Inspector General to investigate all unrestricted reports of sexual assaults made by members of the Armed Forces where the members were subsequently separated from the Armed Forces. The IG would be required to investigate the circumstances of and grounds for such a separation and if policies and procedures were followed.

•    provide service members who are victims of crimes the same basic rights given to civilian victims, such as reasonable protection from the accused, the right to be treated with fairness, and respect for the victim’s dignity and privacy.