U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill Thursday that would make historic changes in the way sexual assaults are prosecuted in the military.
The measure comes in the wake of an alarming Pentagon report which showed that military sexual assaults are up 35 percent over the last year.
"We have arguably 26,000 assaults a year, but only about 3,000 are even reported and only a handful go to trial and result in a conviction," Gillibrand said during an interview on CBS This Morning. "So what we need to do is change the system, so victims know that they can receive justice. What we've heard from victims is a fear of retaliation. They fear that they'll be marginalized or their careers will be over or that they'll be blamed themselves."
Gillibrand, who serves as the chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, introduced bipartisan legislation which takes top commanders out of the process of deciding whether a sexual misconduct case goes to trial.
"We need to create a culture where they feel they can report these crimes and have these crimes be investigated and prosecuted. And so we believe that we have to take this out of the chain of command and allow the reporting and decision making about whether to go to trail to be with the lawyers, the trained prosecutors who understand sexual assault in the military and can hopefully receive justice in these cases," said Gillibrand.
The legislation would remove the prosecution of all crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement from the chain of command, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave.
In a related story, the Army's top officer told soldiers Thursday that after demonstrating courage and resilience in 12 years of war, it's time for them to make the fight against sexual assault their primary mission.
Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno sent a message to the force saying that sexual assault and harassment violate the trust between soldiers and leaders and are contrary to Army values.
He told soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, that the increase in military sexual assaults leads people to believe that the Army is unable to police its own ranks.
He said sexual harassment and sexual assaults "eat at the very core of what we are about - trust."
Odierno and other military leaders are meeting with President Barack Obama Thursday on the escalating sexual assault crisis.