Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday that he seeks to reform military code by stripping commanding officers of their power to overturn court-martial convictions, a change Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., proposed last month.
McCaskill drafted legislation that would alter the commanding officers' power and also require the officers to provide written justification for any changes they make to court-martial sentences. Congress must approve any changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hagel said the Department of Defense's Office of General Counsel is also preparing legislation for Congress.
"These changes would increase the confidence of service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case," Hagel said in a statement. "I look forward to working with Congress on these proposals and others to improve accountability for these crimes."
Prior to Hagel's endorsement, McCaskill said she spent hours talking to officials in the Pentagon and expected they would support her proposed changes. She called Hagel's support a victory.
"This is a big win for survivors of sexual assault in the military, and for the causes of justice and accountability," McCaskill said in a news release.
Hagel said that while the DoD has made changes, it still needs to better address sexual assaults in the military.
"This crime is damaging this institution," Hagel said. "There are thousands of victims in the department, male and female, whose lives and careers have been upended, and that is unacceptable. The current situation should offend every single service member and civilian who, like me, is proud of their association with the United States military"
The military's handling of sexual assaults drew criticism after an incident where Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin overturned a sexual assault conviction a jury handed down to a lieutenant colonel. Franklin defended his decision in a memo to the DoD last month.
Calling the case "the most difficult court case I have ever faced as a convening authority," Franklin said he ultimately overruled the conviction because he had lingering doubts about the lieutenant colonel's guilt.
McCaskill said the letter was a perfect example about why covering authority's powers should be limited.
"This letter is filled with selective reasoning and assumptions from someone with no legal training, and it’s appalling that the reasoning spelled out in the letter served as the basis to overturn a jury verdict in this case," she said in a second news release.