Biden signs order revising prosecuting authority for military sexual assault

President Joe Biden on Friday signed an executive order giving
independent military attorneys the power to prosecute serious crimes,
including sexual assault, and removing that authority from victims’
commanders.

The order implements legislation passed by Congress in 2022 that strengthens protection for service members. 

Sexual
assault has been a persistent and growing problem in the military, with
reports increasing nearly every year since 2006. There were 8,942
reports of sexual assaults in fiscal 2022, up from 8,866 the year
before.

The Pentagon has argued that the increase in reported
assaults is fueled partly by efforts to make it easier and safer for
troops to come forward.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III in 2021 recommended
the shift to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to give independent
attorneys power to prosecute major crimes. It was among several proposals by an independent commission Biden directed to study sexual assault in the military.

Members
of Congress have pushed for the change for several years, arguing that
commanders have been willing to ignore charges or crimes in their unit
to protect the accused. They received pushback from military leaders who
said it could erode commanders’ authority. 

Although the measure
was included in last year’s annual defense bill, it still required
presidential action to revise the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

Officials said the revisions are the most significant to the code since it was established in 1950.

“The
historic reforms announced today will better protect victims and ensure
prosecutorial decisions are fully independent from the chain of the
command,” the White House said in a statement. 

The independent
prosecutors will have decision-making authority in cases of sexual
assault, domestic violence, murder and “other serious offenses,” the
White House said. The order also creates standards for certain
punishments and reforms the sentencing system to promote uniformity and
fairness.

Defense officials have already set up new special trial
counsel offices in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. The
prosecution authority for sexual assault cases will be expanded to those
offices starting Jan. 1, 2025.