(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden has announced his support for the recommendation that prosecution of sexual assaults and sexual harassment cases be removed from the military chain of command in favor of independent prosecutors to handle those cases.
Recommended by an independent civilian panel that looked at sexual assault in the military, the change has been long been supported by advocates for sexual assault victims who say it will improve the handling of sexual assault allegations.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had already announced that he backed the same recommendation made by the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault on the Military when the group presented him with recommendations.
“I strongly support Secretary Austin’s announcement that he is accepting the core recommendations put forward by the Independent Review Commission on Military Sexual Assault (IRC), including removing the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault from the chain of command and creating highly specialized units to handle these cases and related crimes,” Biden said in a statement released Friday.
“Sexual assault is an abuse of power and an affront to our shared humanity,” he added. “And sexual assault in the military is doubly damaging because it also shreds the unity and cohesion that is essential to the functioning of the U.S. military and to our national defense.”
“Today’s announcement is the beginning, not the end of our work,” Biden said. “This will be among the most significant reforms to our military undertaken in recent history, and I’m committed to delivering results.”
Biden said he looked forward to working with Congress “to implement these necessary reforms and promote a work environment that is free from sexual assault and harassment for every one of our brave service members.”
The change to remove the military chain of command from prosecutions has been the centerpiece of legislation championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., for the last decade.
Recently, Gillibrand has received bipartisan support for a bill that has been previously voted down and not backed by the Pentagon.
But Gillibrand’s bill has not received the support of key lawmakers on the Armed Services Committees who are opposed to the removal of the chain of command from all felony cases, not just sexual assault prosecutions.
While Biden expressed support for the change in military sexual assault prosecutions, ahead of Friday’s announcement two senior administration officials seemed to indicate that Biden does not support broader changes in Gillibrand’s bill.
The officials said the independent panel recommends that the changes be enacted by Congress this year but that they not go into effect until 2023 to help build the infrastructure needed to bring special victims prosecutors on board.
“We reject the notion that shifting legal decisions about prosecution from command to prosecutors diminishes the role of those commanders,” said one of the officials.
“We believe, instead, that it enhances their role and places them in the lead of taking care of their people — the number one job of commanders — and creating climates of no tolerance for sexual assault, sexual harassment, and related crimes” the official added.
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