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Senate Panel Hears Support from Sexual Assault Survivors About New Reform Giving All Victims Their Own Independent Counsel



Senate Panel Hears Support from Sexual Assault Survivors About New Reform Giving All Victims Their Own Independent Counsel

Senator discusses importance of recently passed historic reforms to help protect and empower victims

WASHINGTON – A U.S. Senate panel examining the link between sexual assault, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide among members of the military and veterans, heard directly today from survivors of sexual assault about the expected benefits of assigning all survivors of assault their own independent legal counsel to protect their rights and fight for their interests.

At the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearing, former sex crimes prosecutor and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill asked the witnesses about whether the assignment of an independent special victims counsel that is now automatically detailed to each victim who reports an assault will mark a significant improvement in empowering and assisting victims. McCaskill also asked the witnesses about additional reforms that can improve the experience of victims and increase successful prosecutions of assailants, such as eliminating the “good soldier” defense.

“As somebody who spent years as a sex crimes prosecutor, and walked into the courtroom hand in hand with hundreds of victims, I am painfully aware of the shortcomings of victim’s services for this crime, no matter where it occurs…” said McCaskill, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our ability to treat this, and prevent suicide as a result of this absolutely insidious illness, should be at the top of all of our lists. And so I think that at least now we are beginning to recognize the problem—we’ve got a ways to go, obviously, with having the services tailored to the type of stress and trauma that has brought about this illness—and I think that’s what we’re all focused on trying to do now.”

Responding to a question about sexual assault reporting in the military, Dr. Nathan Galbreath, senior advisor for the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, confirmed a spike in the reporting of military sexual trauma as a result of increased victim confidence in the reporting process. The Defense Department recently confirmed a 60 percent increase in reporting between FY12 and FY13, which McCaskill described as numbers that “while a comfort to no one, represent progress.”

McCaskill helped shape and pass historic legislation to curb sexual assault in the military as part of last year’s annual defense bill, which resulted in a host of historic reforms to curb sexual assaults in the military, including:

  • Stripping commanders of the ability to overturn jury convictions,
  • Requiring civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case,
  • Assigning victims their own independent legal counsel to protect their rights and fight for their interests,
  • Mandating dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sexual assault,
  • Criminalizing retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault,
  • Eliminating the statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases,
  • And reforming the pre-trial “Article-32” process to better protect victims.

McCaskill has proposed additional legislation that would continue to build on these historic reforms—cosponsored by Senators Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer—adding more provisions to protect and empower victims and increase reporting and prosecutions.

“We are determined to get rid of the good soldier defense,” McCaskill added in today’s hearing. “I am confident that’s going to happen, if not in the next month then certainly with the next NDAA. I have not encountered opposition to this idea, so I want you to know that before you go… We are working now to make sure that the victims today and going forward have that independent lawyer that can be there for them and advise them, and I’m very excited about that reform—we all worked very hard on it together and I’m really proud of it,” noting a focus “on a policy difference rather than on the monumental historic changes we just got signed into law.”

The hearing comes weeks after the Response Systems Panel—a majority-civilian, majority-woman expert group created in the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act to study how to curb sexual assaults in the military—announced interim findings that recommend against stripping military commanders of their ability to launch courts-martial.

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