Biden implements sweeping changes to how the military handles sexual assault cases

President Biden
President Biden heads to the Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Biden signed an executive order Friday implementing sweeping changes to the military justice system’s handling of sexual assault cases. The reforms, which won bipartisan approval in Congress, remove serious criminal cases from victims’ chain of command and instead place the cases under the authority of trained prosecutors.

“Sexual assault cases in the military have been plagued with concerns from victims who fear coming forward to see prosecutions led by their own commander,” as NPR reported last December. “Overall, a very low share of such cases go to trial or see convictions.”

The reform effort was led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has long pushed for changes in how the U.S. military handles sexual assault cases as well as other serious crimes, including domestic violence, child abuse and murder.

It had been up to commanding officers to decide whether to prosecute such cases. But military prosecutors will now make those decisions, rather than commanders.

“While it will take time to see the results of these changes, these measures will instill more trust, professionalism, and confidence in the system,” Gillibrand said in a statement sent to NPR.

“The changes represent the most significant transformation of the military justice system since the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] was established in 1950,” the president’s executive order states, calling the reforms “historic.”

The reforms were approved by Congress as part of the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Biden’s executive order is a crucial step in implementing the shifts, as he formally amended the U.S. military’s Manual for Courts-Martial, as called for in the new law.

“I want to thank the survivors, advocates and veterans for their efforts, as well as my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who helped get this done,” Gillibrand said.

For years, the Pentagon resisted the idea of taking sexual assault cases outside of the normal chain of command, but a special military panel recommended that change two years ago, saying independent judge advocates, not commanding officers, should decide whether to pursue legal charges in such cases.

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