White House

Special victims units outside the chain of command to handle cases

An executive order from President Joe Biden will change the way the military handles sexual assault cases.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An executive order from President Joe Biden will change the way the military handles sexual assault cases. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Posted July 28, 2023 at 10:41am

President Joe Biden on Friday will sign an executive order revamping the way sexual assault and other crimes are handled in the military, the White House said.

The order implements legislative changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice wrapped into the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Under the changes, prosecution of sexual and related crimes will be handled by special victims units in the services, outside the military chain of command.

“This is a turning point for survivors of gender-based violence in the military, and represents the most significant transformation of the military justice system since the UCMJ was established in 1950,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday.

Covered offenses include sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, murder, manslaughter and kidnapping, among other crimes.

The NDAA provisions set a December 2023 deadline for full implementation of the changes, and the newly minted Offices of Special Trial Counsel will be operational by then, officials said.

The executive order creates the rules that will govern the offices and establishes that prosecutorial decisions made by the special trial counsel are binding and independent from the chain of command.

It also delineates the relationship between special trial counsel and commanders to protect the independence of special trial counsels, and creates a uniform evidence standard for non-judicial punishment actions, among other changes.

The executive order marks a major step in an overhaul of the military justice system long advocated by some lawmakers. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., spearheaded efforts to alter the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make it fairer for victims of sexual assault, arguing that colonels, captains, generals and admirals had too much influence on the process.

Sexual assault continues to plague the military. A report released in April indicated that the number of servicemembers who reported sexual assault in fiscal 2022 increased slightly from fiscal 2021. According to the report, 7,378 servicemembers said they experienced sexual assault last year compared with 7,260 the previous year — a 1.6 percent increase.

However, Pentagon officials stressed at the time that the number of reported incidents doesn’t paint a full picture of the problem because many crimes go unreported. Last year’s scientific survey on sexual assault prevalence, which is conducted every two years, estimated that almost 36,000 active-duty personnel, both women and men, were sexually assaulted.