WASHINGTON, June 4 (UPI) -- The top U.S. military leaders told Congress of concerns about bills that would revamp military law by removing sexual assault cases from commanders.
On Tuesday, the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were set to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about what the Pentagon has described as an "epidemic" of sex crimes within the armed forces.
Lawmakers are considering bills to address the problem, but haven't settled on one approach, The Washington Post reported.
The military leaders, however, said earlier they do not favor a proposal that would give uniformed prosecutors, instead of commanders, the authority to open criminal investigations into sexual assault cases and bring them to trial. The leaders argued such a change would send a message that commanders can't be trusted to make good decisions, undercutting the foundation of military culture.
"Sexual assault remains an unacceptable problem for our military and society," Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno said in a May 20 letter to the senators. "We cannot, however, simply 'prosecute' our way out of this problem. At its heart, sexual assault is a discipline issue that requires a culture change."
A bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has drawn the leaders' greatest concern because it would give prosecutors primary responsibility for cases involving sexual assault cases and other serious crimes.
In an interview with the Post Monday, Gillibrand said the chiefs' concerns about a reduction in commanders' legal authority was inconsistent with their recognition that most sexual assault victims in the military don't trust their superiors to protect them or treat their cases seriously.
"It doesn't make any sense," she said. "They have a very strong understanding that victims don't want to report because they feel they'll be retaliated against or they think their careers will be derailed."