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McCaskill continues pushing military sexual assault prosecution changes through committee

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, intends to spend much of August and September pushing major reforms through the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which she is a senior member, a spokesperson for her office said.

McCaskill spent much of last spring and this summer looking to reform the way the military handles sexual assault allegations between enlisted members.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill

John LaBombard, Director of Communications for McCaskill, said she was “uniquely” fitted to handle the military sexual assault problem.

“As far as we know, she’s the only member of the U.S. Senate who prosecuted these kinds of crimes, holding hands with survivors, hearing their stories, and then fighting to win justice for them in the courtroom,” LaBombard told The Missouri Times.

McCaskill’s proposed reforms, mostly coming in the form of legislation, would make a number of procedural changes to the handling of sexual assault cases in the military. Reforms would strip high-ranking commanders the ability to overturn jury convictions of those under their command, install a civilian review to study all instances in which prosecution was not perused, mandates harsher punishments in the form of dishonorable discharges for anyone convicted, eliminates the statute of limitation in sexual assaults and, for the first time, criminalizes retaliation against individuals reporting themselves as the victim of a sexual crime.

Much of the proposed reforms came after Department of Defense documents showed a rise in the number of sexual assaults during the last year. Anonymous service member surveys show that as many as 26,000 sexual assaults may have taken place in 2012, up from an estimated 19,000 in 2011. And the DOD estimates that 23-28 percent of women will be the victims of at least one sexual assault during their service, while approximately 11 percent will be raped.

McCaskill’s efforts run counter to a plan offered by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The plan would establish a new office outside the traditional military chain of command to prosecute the cases and strip commanders of their court martial authority, which McCaskill has previously said will let commanders off the hook and lead to fewer convictions. Currently, her office confirms that she’s spent much of her time quashing rumors about the two approaches and pushing her own plan “across the finish line.”

“She’s spending most of her time on this right now,” LaBombard said. “Just dealing with rumors about her plan, and telling people about some other ideas out there, it’s very satisfying work but it’s hectic. It’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole right now.”

Members opposing McCaskill’s measures say victims live in fear of their commanders and that removing their authority in the matter will make the likelihood of victims coming forward increase. However, McCaskill says U.S. allies pushing the same approach did not see an increase in reported assaults, and that no rule requires the reporting of a sexual assault to take place within the chain of command.

“[McCaskill] views this as a risky approach for victims — one that would increase the risk of retaliation, let commanders off the hook for addressing the problem and lead to fewer prosecutions,” LaBombard said.

McCaskill has previously said that while her plan is less conducive to an easy sound bite, it is more substantively beneficial for victims. Should the Committee give it final approval the changes would be included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act and go into effect during 2013.