Biden signs 'historic' executive order on how US military handles sexual assault cases

Independent prosecutor will now decide whether to prosecute such offenses.

July 28, 2023, 3:37 PM

U.S. President Joe Biden signed a "historic" executive order on Friday that will change how the military handles sexual assault cases, the White House said.

Biden, in a Twitter post, called the action an "important step forward."

"Gender-based violence is an affront to our shared humanity. And sexual assault in the military shreds the unity essential to national defense," Biden said. He added, "Keeping our country safe starts with prioritizing the safety of those who serve."

The executive order amends the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) by transferring key decision-making powers from commanders to specialized, independent military prosecutors in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, murder, child abuse and other serious offenses. The changes, which implement reforms passed by Congress last year, mark "the most significant transformation" of the U.S. military justice system since the UCMJ was established in 1950, according to the White House.

"The historic reforms announced today will better protect victims and ensure prosecutorial decisions are fully independent from the chain of the command," the White House said in a statement. "These reforms are a turning point for survivors of gender-based violence in the military. They fulfill President Biden’s promise to fundamentally shift how the military justice system responds to sexual assault and related crimes, which is something President Biden has prioritized since Day One of this administration."

Friday's action establishes rules that will govern the new Offices of Special Trial Counsel, the independent military prosecutors who will now decide, in place of commanders, whether to prosecute such offenses. The executive order will make clear that prosecutorial decisions made by special trial counsel are binding and fully independent from the military's chain of command, and it will delineate the relationship and authorized interactions between the two to protect the independence of the prosecutors. In addition, procedures will be modernized to better protect victims and promote fairness before, during and after court-martial proceedings; the court-martial sentencing system will be reformed to promote uniformity and fairness to reduce disparities in sentencing in cases of rape and sexual assault; and a uniform evidence standard for non-judicial punishment actions will be created to ensure consistency across the military services, according to the White House.

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The White House said the changes will advance the core accountability recommendations outlined in a 2021 report by the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, building on progress that has been already made by the U.S. Department of Defense.

"Ending gender-based violence wherever it occurs has been a top priority for the President throughout his career -- as a Senator, and as Vice President," the White House added. "As Commander in Chief, he’s made clear that our one truly sacred obligation as a nation is to prepare and equip those we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families both while they are deployed and when they return home. The reforms implemented through today’s Executive Order do just that, promoting dignity and respect for those who serve by better protecting our servicemembers and making the military safer and more just."

A survey released last year by the U.S. Department of Defense found that the number of sexual assaults on service members reported in 2021 spiked to a new high of 7,249, representing a 13% increase from the previous year. The survey also showed that despite major efforts to address the issue of sexual assault in the military, including reforms instituted in 2021, women in the military services have significantly lost trust in the military to follow through on their cases or treat them with respect.

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