On the cusp of successfully removing sexual assault cases from the military’s chain of command, Senator Kristen Gillibrand said she will broaden her proposed legislation to remove all serious crimes to combat racial injustice in the armed services.
The New York Democrat said Black people were more likely to be investigated and arrested for misconduct in the military and therefore any serious felonies that carry more than a year penalty should be prosecuted in civilian courts to remove biases across the board, not just in sexual assault cases.
Ms Gillibrand, who has waged an eight-year campaign to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military’s chain of command, broadened the scope of her demands for further reforms during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.
In an interview with the Associated Press on Friday, Ms Gillibrand labelled senior leadership of the committee and the Department of Defence as "problematic" if they didn’t support the so-called "bright line" standard of no felonies prosecuted by military tribunal.
“Having the chairman and ranking member opposed to this reform is highly problematic if this bill goes to the committee,” Ms Gillibrand said, adding, “It would be easier if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the secretary of defence supported our proposal.”
It comes after the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milly, said the proposal would "require some detailed study" before making significant changes, and Secretary of Defence, Loyd Austin, said they had not been scoped to recommend changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice [UCMJ] beyond sexual assault and harassment.
"I am very open-minded to some significant and fundamental change in the area of sexual assault, and sexual harassment,” Mr Milley told Ms Gilibrand on 10 June.
“The bright line of all felonies, for example, I think that requires some detailed study before we completely overhaul the entire UCMJ, but the focused area of sexual assault and sexual harassment, I’m completely open-minded to some very significant changes, and I think that’s also true of most of the senior leaders in uniform."
Last week’s Armed Service Committee hearing was among the first major public statements from senior defence leadership that they were open to removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command.
But Ms Gillibrand said it didn’t go far enough as Black service members were between 1.29 times and 2.16 times more likely to have disciplinary action taken against them, across all branches of the military, between 2006 to 2015.
Mr Loyd said recommendations that he would deliver to the White House "later this month" would not touch upon racial disparities in the military as it went beyond the scope of its current review.
"I always have an open mind to solving any tough problem. But as you know the commission the president tasked me to stand up, and has stood up and provided me some initial recommendations, and still owes me some additional recommendations, has been focused on the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment," he said.
"I want to be sure that whatever changes we make to the UCMJ, or whatever changes to the UCMJ that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee, that they are scoped to the problem that we are trying to solve and have a clear way forward on implementation and ultimately restore the confidence of the force and the system,” he added in his opening statement.
The Independent Review Commission, set up by Mr Austin, is expected to report on prevention and victim support programs, which he will use to deliver his own recommendations to the White House.
Ms Gillibrand told the AP that the Pentagon would use the report to "confuse members of Congress" and that limiting change to sexual assault would be discriminatory as a "pink" court would deal with crimes of female victims while racial bias would remain in military prosecution.
“I’m deeply concerned that if they limit it to just sexual assault, it will really harm female service members. It will further marginalize them, further undermine them, and they’ll be seen as getting special treatment,” she said.
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