Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will recommend to President Biden that decisions to prosecute cases of sexual assault should be taken out of the chain of command. Austin's recommendation comes amid increasing pressure from Congress to overhaul the system for addressing sexual assault in the military.
"We will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command," Austin said in a statement. He is set to testify Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee.
He said he will also support the inclusion of other special victims' crimes inside this independent prosecution system, including domestic violence, because of the correlation between these crimes and sexual assault.
Austin set up the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military on his second day at the Pentagon and instructed the panel to deliver recommendations on how to fix a problem that has affected so many and taints confidence in the military.
The commission looked into prevention, climate and culture as well as accountability, which included studying whether or not to take the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases out of the chain of command. In May, the commission delivered an initial set of recommendations that encouraged making this change.
Austin on Monday received the full final recommendations from the commission. He will take the final recommendations to Mr. Biden and work with Congress on making the change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has at least 66 co-sponsors on her Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which would remove the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases as well as all other serious crimes from the chain of command. Austin's statement does not mention larger changes to the military justice system.
Earlier this month, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is open minded to "significant and fundamental change" in the area of sexual assault and harassment but would want to see "some detailed study" before changes to the military justice system are applied to all serious crimes.
Senator Jack Reed, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has expressed support for making the change on sexual assault and will include debate over this change in the annual defense bill. He does not support Gillibrand's legislation because of the massive overhaul it would mean for the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Earlier Tuesday, Senator Jim Inhofe released letters from members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who expressed their personal concerns about making changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"The service chiefs acknowledged the devastating effects of sexual assault on our military, and all were open to reasonable ideas to address this issue," Inhofe said in a statement. "However, I also heard them caution that any changes should be evidence-based and limited in scope to sexual assault and related offenses."
On Wednesday, Representative Jackie Speier of California will introduce the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act which would also remove the decision to prosecute all serious crimes from the Chain of Command.