California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law on Thursday a bill that will take the prosecution of military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and into the hands of civilian prosecutors in the state.
Currently, when a member of the state military is charged with sexual assault, the investigation and prosecution of the case is done within the military system and by military lawyers. The bill, SB 1422, removes such cases from the jurisdiction of military lawyers. The only exception would be when a civilian prosecutor refuses to see the case on behalf of the state.
The law also will require that the California Military Department annually report sexual assault incidents and plans for the prevention of sexual assault to the state government.
In 2013, the Pentagon released a report finding that 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted the previous year. Of those, only 3,374 cases were reported. Two days before the report was released, an Air Force officer responsible for sexual assault prevention programs was charged with sexual battery.
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This year, the Pentagon found that cases of reported sexual assault increased to 5,061, or by 50 percent. But of those reported cases, only about 10 percent went to trial.
Advocates for reforms to the military’s handling of sexual assault have long been trying to pass on a federal level legislation like the new law in California. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) pushed for federal reform legislation that, among other things, took military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command, a reform which she said would encourage reporting and provide for a fair trial. After a long fight for the bill’s passage, the Military Justice Improvement Act (as it was called) was finally blocked earlier this year.
State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who sponsored the California bill, said in a statement, “Sexual assault is a serious problem throughout our military. While Washington debates how to address this crisis, California can lead by example. Victims of sexual assault deserve our support and a respectful and effective justice system.”