The Senate on Monday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would make big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault.
The measure, approved 97-0, would scrap the nearly century-old practice of using a "good soldier defense" to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.
It would impose a half-dozen changes as Congress tries to combat the pervasive problem of rape and sexual offenses that Pentagon leaders have likened to a cancer within the ranks. However, unlike a rival bill rejected last week by the Senate, it does not take sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of military commanders and the chain of command.
The bipartisan bill approved Monday was written by three female senators - Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.
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"Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare--but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we've achieved over the past year in the military justice system," McCaskill said in a statement. "Today the Senate voted to strengthen even further what is now one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world, in which every victim will get their own lawyer, commanders will be held accountable, and more perpetrators will see the inside of a brig."
The House could act on the bill as a stand-alone measure or incorporate it into a larger defense bill in the spring.
The broad support is in sharp contrast to last week, when military leaders vigorously opposed the measure, by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have stripped commanders of their authority to prosecute cases. The Senate voted 55-45 for that farther-reaching bill, but that was five votes short of the necessary 60.
The new legislation would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as an element of his defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime. The "good soldier defense" could encompass a defendant's military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
McCaskill described it as "the ridiculous notion that how well one flies a plane should have anything to do with whether they committed a crime."
Under the bill, the defense could still be used in the sentencing phase. The Pentagon has indicated that it is crucial as commanders adjust sentences to allow for plea agreements.
The measure also would give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are litigated in the military system or civilian and would establish a confidential process to allow alleged victims to challenge their separation or discharge from the military. In addition, it would increase the accountability of commanders and extend all changes related to sexual assault cases to the service academies.
In cases where a prosecutor wanted to move ahead with a case but a commander disagreed, the civilian service secretary would be the final arbiter.
The Pentagon has reservations about that last provision, suggesting it could have a chilling effect on majors and captains if they think every decision gets kicked up to the service secretary. Overall, however, the Pentagon is generally accepting of the Senate bill.
Next would come consideration by the House, where Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Monday, "The entire House is proud of the bipartisan reforms on this important issue included in last year's defense authorization bill, and we will review this legislation to determine the best way to consider additional reforms in the House."
The Pentagon has estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012, based on an anonymous survey. Many victims are still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing abuse, the military says.
Some changes already have been made in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Outraged lawmakers - Democrats and Republicans - rewrote parts last year, stripping commanders of their ability to overturn military jury convictions. That law also requires a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and requires that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.
The law also provides alleged victims with legal counsel, eliminates the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases and criminalizes retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.
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