A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday proposed major changes to military laws for sexual assault cases, backing a bill to prevent military commanders from handling sexual assault cases that involve their subordinates.
"We believe enough is enough. It is time to change this system that has been held over since George Washington that is simply not working today for the men and women who are serving," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Armed Services Committee who is spearheading the legislation.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is joined by a group of colleagues on Capitol Hill while introducing sexual assault legislation that would reform the military justice system.
"What does it say about us as a people, as a nation, as the foremost military in the world, when some of our servicemembers both men and women have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?" asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The bill would take serious sexual assault cases completely out of the military's chain of command if the potential sentence amounts to more than a year in prison -- the equivalent of a felony in a civilian court.
"When any single victim of sexual assault is forced to salute her attacker, clearly our system is broken," Gillibrand said.
The military has resisted such sweeping changes in the past, but a recent string of incidents has increased pressure on Defense Department leaders to change the policy. The top Air Force officer charged with preventing sexual assault was accused of attacking a woman in a Virginia parking lot, and a soldier at Fort Hood tasked with sexual assault prevention is under investigation for sexual abuse.
Collins and Gillibrand spoke at a press conference Thursday morning, where she was joined by an array of colleagues from both house of Congress and from both parties, including Collins, and Reps. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., and Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz.
Gillibrand's bill also requires that a decision about how a sexual assault case is handled -- whether it goes to trial and how the court-martial proceeds -- is made by someone who holds a rank equivalent to colonel.
It would also allow each military service's chief of staff to establish courts, empanel juries and pick judges to hear sexual assault cases, and write into law a proposal from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that prevents commanders from overturning sexual assault convictions or reducing guilty findings to lesser offenses.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Senate subcommittee on Personnel Chair Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. addresses the third panel on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, during the subcommittee's hearing on sexual assault in the military.
The event was held in advance of a planned meeting at the White House on the issue. President Barack Obama was to meet with Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, the military service chiefs, military service secretaries, and the senior enlisted advisers.
Gillibrand and other lawmakers met earlier this month with top White House advisers -- the meeting was led by Valerie Jarrett, who is personally close to the president -- to discuss the problem.
This story was originally published on Thu May 16, 2013 11:25 AM EDT