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Senate clears military sex assault prosecution bill

By Ted Barrett, Senior Congressional Producer
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Tue March 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Senate bill offered modest reforms to prosecuting cases
  • Chamber last week turned back a bill that would have been tougher
  • Measure was in response to spike in sex assault reports in the military
  • Bill now goes to House for consideration

(CNN) -- The U.S. Senate on Monday voted 97 to 0 in approving modest reforms aimed at strengthening prosecution of sex assaults in the military.

Last week, senators blocked legislation that would have dramatically altered the way serious crimes in the military, like sexual assault and rape, are handled.

The newly approved bill now goes to the House for consideration.

Sen. Claire McCaskill said the changes adopted Monday, which were designed to bolster a series of similar reforms adopted last year, mean the U.S. military has "one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world."

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For months, the Missouri Democrat and former prosecutor was locked in battle with fellow Democrat, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, over how to best reform sex assault prosecutions in the military.

There has been a steep rise in reported cases in recent years. Some 26,000 incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact were reported in 2012 alone, according to a Pentagon study.

Gillibrand's proposal, which was supported by a majority of senators but fell five votes shy of the 60 votes it needed to pass, would have removed commanders from deciding whether their subordinates should be prosecuted, leaving those decisions to military prosecutors.

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The idea was opposed by the Pentagon on the grounds that it would weaken command authority.

McCaskill argued Gillibrand's proposal would have led to fewer prosecutions and warned more victims could face retaliation from their fellow service members if their commanders weren't involved in the cases.

The bill approved Monday would largely disallow the so-called "good soldier" defense, which permits defendants to enter evidence of their good military character at trial to mitigate the charges against them.

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It also gives victims input into whether their case is prosecuted in a military or civilian court, providing "a victim a greater degree of control of his or her case," according to a summary provided by McCaskill's office.

In addition, it would apply the reforms adopted last year to the military service academies.

The major reforms that became law last year include: removing the authority of commanders to overturn convictions; providing attorneys to victims; making it a crime to retaliate against a victim; and requiring a dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sexual assault.

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