House Approves Stricter Punishments For Military Sexual Assault

The House of Representatives on Friday afternoon approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision requiring stricter punishments for members of the armed forces who commit sex-related crimes. The bill requires a jail term minimum of two years for any member of the military convicted of rape or sexual assault.

The bill’s passage adds to growing demand on Capitol Hill that something needs to be done about what has become an epidemic of sexual assault in the military. Last month, Pentagon officials came out with a report estimating that there were 26,000 cases of “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012. The numbers aren’t definitive due to a lack of reporting, but indicate a widespread problem.

Members of Congress — most vocally among them Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) — have picked up on the report as a call to action. They believe that the lack of reporting, and the epidemic itself, can be attributed to the fact that servicemembers are required to report sexual assault up the chain of command. In many cases, this means informing a superior that someone they supervise has committed a crime, an intimidating prospect to some experiencing emotional trauma.

The military is taking steps to address the problem, but both military officials and some members of the Senate, notably Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), have rejected the idea of changing the chain-of-command reporting structure.