By DONNA CASSATA and RICHARD LARDNERAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate panel has approved legislation to overhaul the military justice system in an effort to staunch the growing number of sexual assaults in the armed forces.
Key portions of the bill passed Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee are opposed by senior U.S. military leaders. They say the proposed changes are too drastic and will undermine the ability of commanders to enforce good order and discipline within their units.
But Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the panel's chairwoman and the bill's cosponsor, says aggressive reforms in the military's legal code are needed to counter the rise in sexual assaults within the ranks.
Her bill would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Tuesday that Congress is considering stripping the military of its authority to prosecute sexual assault cases and shifting the responsibility to state prosecutors.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the status quo is unacceptable as the military struggles with an epidemic of sexual assaults.
"I know there is some reluctance expressed in making the chain of command more responsive. But with all of you here, let me tell you there is some thought ... to removing the exception and allowing state prosecutors to move in on those cases," Leahy said at a Senate hearing. "And I throw that out - realize that'd be quite controversial. I throw that out as a warning to the military chain of command that this ... do things as they've always been done is not acceptable."
Hagel assured Leahy that changes will be made to deal with sexual assaults in the services and specifically mentioned specially appointed panel that would be meeting in two weeks to consider reforms.
"There are going to have to be changes made. There will be changes made," Hagel said. "But as we make those changes and work with the Congress on this, we need to be as sure as we can be that the consequences that will come from whatever decisions made by the Congress to make those kinds of adjustments that we need to make - and you know I agree with that in many ways - that they're thoughtful." .
Outraged by recent high-profile cases and the latest statistics, Congress is pushing ahead with several legislative changes in a sweeping defense policy bill.
A Senate panel was scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to consider legislation by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would deny commanders the authority to decide when criminal charges are filed and remove the ability of senior officers to convene courts-martial.
The House was slated to consider the defense bill later this week with various provisions on the issue.
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
By week's end, the House is scheduled to vote on a defense policy bill that would take away the power of military commanders to overturn convictions in rape and assault cases.
The measure also would require that anyone found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
The legislation eliminates the five-year statute of limitations on trial by court-martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child. It also establishes the authority for military legal counsel to provide legal assistance to victims of sex-related offenses and requires enhanced training for all military and civilian attorneys involved in sex-related cases.
More than 40 senators are sponsors or co-sponsors of proposals, several of which have overlapping provisions.
A bill by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., would provide any victims with a special military lawyer who would assist them throughout the process. Another, sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would require that any service member found guilty of rape or sexual assault receive a minimum punishment of a dismissal or a dishonorable discharge.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill with provisions that require commanders to submit reports of sex-related offenses to more senior officers within 24 hours.
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