By Jennifer Steinhauer
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress cautiously applauded new policies announced at the Pentagon on Thursday that are intended to improve the legal system for victims of sexual assault in the military, but the changes do little to alter the way those crimes are adjudicated.
Under pressure from Capitol Hill and from victims’ groups, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his department would extend a pilot program giving victims of sexual assault their own legal representation and would consider allowing them more influence in the sentencing phase of trials.
Some of the plans reflect legislation already before Congress, including a bill to provide victims with legal counsel co-sponsored by Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire.
“I was pleased to see Secretary Hagel has put priority on its implementation,” Ms. Murray said in a statement. “Providing legal advocates for victims is a major step forward in reversing this awful trend and establishing the necessary means for these men and women to take action against their attackers through what is a deeply personal and painful process.”
Other new provisions that mirror proposed Congressional measures include those that would help victims of sexual assault transfer to a new unit, away from assailants. The provision also standardizes new rules that would set parameters for interactions between recruiters and recruits.
But the provisions do not change the power commanders have to decide which cases to try, to select juries and to unilaterally overturn convictions. Some military justice experts and lawmakers say that some or all of those powers should be transferred to military prosecutors.
After praising Mr. Hagel’s efforts, Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, the New York Democrat who is seeking to remove the authority of commanders over sexual assault cases, said the Pentagon’s steps were “not the leap forward required to solve the problem.”
Under the provisions, a panel will review whether commanders should continue to overturn convictions, a rare occurrence that enrages victims and their advocates.
Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, was unimpressed with the Pentagon’s actions. “I continue to be underwhelmed by the military’s baby steps on this issue,” she said in a statement. “The Pentagon has missed yet another opportunity to fulfill its promises of zero tolerance and improved justice.”
A Pentagon survey this year found that an estimated 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 in 2010. At the end of the last fiscal year, Sept. 30, there were roughly 1,600 sexual assault cases in the military either awaiting action from commanders or the completion of a criminal investigation.
The department has been under fire for months to address the problem, and it has run into further trouble with prosecutions in recent weeks over so-called unlawful command influence.
Since May, when Mr. Obama said at the White House that sexual offenders in the military ought to be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” lawyers in dozens of cases have argued that his words as commander in chief amounted to “unlawful command influence,” tainting trials and creating unfair circumstances for clients as a result. This month, Mr. Hagel attempted to beat back that problem with a memorandum asking military commanders to use their own judgment in cases and to not be influenced by Mr. Obama’s remarks.
When Congress resumes next month, the issue is almost certain to return to the fore. The full Senate will debate Mr. Hagel’s plans and various sexual assault measures this year as part of a broad defense bill.
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