Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on Thursday introduced legislation to overhaul how the military handles cases of serious crimes, including sexual assault

The legislation, backed by a growing number of senators, would move prosecutorial decisions for serious crimes out of the chain of command and give it to independent military prosecutors. 

“We owe it to our service members to do more to prevent these crimes, and to properly prosecute them when they occur,” Gillibrand said while announcing the legislation Thursday flanked by a bipartisan group. 

Gillibrand has advocated for this move since 2013 and has gradually picked off support from senators of both parties who have noticed that sexual assault in the military is not declining. 

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, third from right, speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on April 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

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In the most recent Sexual Assault Annual Prevention and Response prevalence report that was issued in 2018, the Department of Defense estimated that about 20,500 service members experienced a form of sexual assault. In 2019, the number of reported assaults the Department of Defense tracked increased by 3% between 2018 and 2019. The 2020 report has not been released yet.  

Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa expressed her support for the legislation this week after talking to Gillibrand about adding language about preventing sexual assault through security measures and education and training. Ernst, who is a survivor of sexual assault, said prevention is important because once a sexual assault happens, it affects the victim’s life every day. 

Ernst, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, was initially hesitant to sign onto the legislation because she didn’t want to take decisions out of the chain of command. 

She said she has kept an open mind but the killing of Vanessa Guillen and subsequent Fort Hood report showed the “horrible command climate up and down the chain of command.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made countering sexual assault one of his priorities. He started  up a 90-day Independent Review Commission of Sexual Assault in the military advocated for by President Joe Biden. The commission is just over 30 days into its review. 

The commission has made an initial set of recommendations to Austin that includes taking the decision to prosecute cases of sexual assault out of the chain of command. Austin has taken the initial recommendations to the services to hear their feedback by the end of May. 

Gillibrand said taking just crimes of sexual assault out of the chain of command would not be wise because victims of sexual assault would be dealing with a different court than others. Her legislation would give all prosecutorial decisions of serious crimes to independent prosecutors. 

The senators and advocates standing with Gillibrand called her “relentless” at least four times when describing how she has gradually pursued more supporters. She said she keeps a white board of who is open to considering supporting the bill and on Thursday said Democratic Senators Tim Kaine, Angus King, Mark Warner and Jon Tester have all decided to support the bill this year. 

“This is now our job because it is necessary to create a better, more professional system where justice is possible,” Gillibrand said.