New in 2023: Independent sexual assault prosecutions coming soon

Airman 1st Class Nicolas Erwin

The services are set to implement a huge change to the military justice system that’s been about a decade in the making: the creation of an independent special victim’s prosecution office, empowered to make decisions on filing charges and sending cases to trial without a unit commander’s sign-off.

The Defense Department has until the end of 2023 to fully implement this new trial counsel organization dedicated specifically to handling sexual assault, domestic violence, murder, manslaughter and other major crimes.

The move will revolutionize the way the Uniform Code of Military Justice handles criminal prosecutions, removing the chain-of-command from its historical role in judicial proceedings and putting decision-making in the hands of legal professionals, much the way the civilian court system works.

It’s one of more than 80 recommendations to come out of a 2021 independent review commission, which went over the military’s entire sexual assault and prevention infrastructure with a fine-tooth comb.

In addition to a special trial counsel, they recommended hiring professionals to staff all sexual assault prevention and response offices, rather than service members in a collateral duty, and a new evaluation field that requires raters to describe how a service member upholds SAPR principles.

The military’s sexual assault problem is only getting worse

Service officials told lawmakers during testimony in September that they were on their way to designating dozens of prosecutors for the new independent office.

Hiring the new prevention workforce has taken longer than expected, in part due to delayed passage of the fiscal 2022 budget. The Pentagon has given itself until 2028 to implement all of the IRC’s recommendations.

“Getting this right requires we move on expeditiously as possible to implement change, while also ensuring we do not rush to failure,” Gil Cisneros, the Pentagon’s personnel chief, told the House Armed Services Committee in September. “If we improperly rush now, we will not be able to pick up the pieces and establish trust with our service members again.”