President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order designating sexual harassment as an offense in the US military’s judicial code.
Biden took the step after it was included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.
A provision in the NDAA required that the President take this step to make sexual harassment an “offense punishable,” in the Uniform Code of Military Justice within 30 days of the bill becoming law. Biden signed that bill into law at the end of December.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this change was a “key recommendation” from the Defense Department’s Independent Review Commission on Military Sexual Assault. The commission released about 80 recommendations to reform the military justice system’s handling of these issues in 2021. The Pentagon said they would implement all of the recommendations in September.
This year’s National Defense Authorization Act, an annual must-pass piece of legislation that authorizes Department of Defense spending, included several changes to how sexual harassment and assault are prosecuted within the US military.
Along with designating sexual harassment as a separate offense, the NDAA changed how sexual harassment complaints are handled within the military. Military commanders now have to forward complaints of sexual harassment to independent investigators.
Commanders have also been removed from “decisions related to the prosecution of covered crimes,” which include rape, sexual assault, murder and manslaughter. Those decisions will instead be moved to an Office of the Special Trial Counsel that will be created in each service, the NDAA states.
Even though the NDAA made several changes to the way the military handles sexual assault and harassment, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, ultimately voted against the legislation, arguing it did not go far enough to reform the system. Gillibrand has been an outspoken advocate of reforming the military justice system and has spearheaded legislation to change the system.
“While there’s no doubt that those are important advances, this bill does not reform the military justice system in a way that will truly help survivors get justice,” Gillibrand said in December.
The White House called this year’s NDAA “a historical point … with meaningful reform of the military justice system and handling of handling of sexual assault cases.”
“The President believes that this legislation takes groundbreaking steps to improve the response and … prevention of sexual assault in the military,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling with the President to Kansas City, Missouri in December.
Robert Capovilla, a partner at Capovilla & Williams and a former US Army Judge Advocate, believes this step sends a clear message to military service members that allegations of sexual harassment will be taken seriously.
“It sends a message from our President, our Commander in Chief, that sexual harassment allegations are going to be taken very seriously,” Capovilla said. “I think any intent to eradicate sexual assault or harassment from the ranks is a good step and certainly a necessary step.”
CNN’s DJ Judd contributed to this report.