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Defense secretary may recommend change to military sexual assault cases

By
Zarrin Ahmed
U.S. Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., on Thursday. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/UPI
U.S. Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., on Thursday. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/UPI | License Photo

June 10 (UPI) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested on Thursday that he intends to recommend to the president that the military's legal system be altered to remove sexual assault prosecutions from a commander's authority.

In opening remarks during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin said that "clearly, what we've been doing hasn't been working."

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Currently, commanders decide whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence.

Austin's recommendation would appoint independent military lawyers to take over the role.

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He is is looking specifically at whether to remove sexual assault and harassment cases from the chain of command and hand the cases over to professional military prosecutors.

An independent review commission recommended that Austin lean toward the decision. Since then, he's gathered opinions from service chiefs and secretaries.

"One assault is too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are still too high, and the confidence in our system is still too low," Austin said.

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"I want to be sure that whatever changes to the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] I recommend to the president -- and ultimately to this committee -- are scoped to the problem we are trying to solve, have a clear way forward on implementation, and ultimately restore the confidence of the force in the system," he said.

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The Senate is considering a bill that would take all felony offenses out of a commanding officer's hands.

This would serve to "remove biases across the board and to professionalize the entire military justice system," New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand told Austin.

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Gillibrand noted research showing Black troops are more likely to be charged under than White troops.

She added that British, Israeli and other armed forces have adopted the same model.

When asked about expanding the idea of independent prosecutors to all felonies, Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark Milley said a complete review is required.

He added that he still has an open mind about prosecuting sexual assault differently.

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