Speier, Turner Introduce Bipartisan Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act to Remove Sexual Assault Prosecution Decisions from the Chain of Command
Yesterday, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, and I, Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, along with co-leads Representatives Anthony G. Brown (D-MD), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), Elaine Luria (D-VA), Trent Kelly (R-MS), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), and Richard Hudson (R-NC), introduced a bipartisan, bicameral bill to move the decision to prosecute serious crimes in the military from the chain of command. The Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act is the House companion to S.1520, sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Charles Grassley (R-IA), and which has 66 co-sponsors. We are calling on Congress to take up the legislation expeditiously as a standalone measure.
Under current law, commanders who do not have legal training make the decision on whether to prosecute a servicemember for major crimes, such as murder and rape, under the military justice system. The Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act would transfer this responsibility to military attorneys with significant trial experience, offering victims and their loved ones the confidence that a professional military prosecutor who is independent—outside of the chain of command of the victim and the alleged perpetrator—is making crucial decisions on whether to pursue trial. Commanders would retain discretion to prosecute servicemembers for military-specific offenses, such as desertion, and for crimes with maximum punishment of less than one year of confinement.
The legislation also includes provisions to improve training on prevention of sexual assault, require notice to Congress if the Defense Department changes policies related to sexual assault prevention and response, increase training for military prosecutors, and improve the physical security of lodging and living spaces on military installations.
SPC Vanessa Guillén was murdered at Fort Hood in April of 2020 after she was sexually harassed by her supervisor, a violation that her command knew about yet did nothing to stop or address. The tragedy of her death at the hands of another soldier was followed by a groundswell of calls by survivors of military sexual violence and other crimes for change in how the military holds perpetrators accountable. Chair Speier has introduced a separate bill, the I am Vanessa Guillén Act (H.R.3224), which also addresses the chain of command and includes additional provisions to improve the military’s response to sexual harassment, establish a claims process for negligence related to a report of sexual assault or sexual harassment, and reform the Army’s sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention and response program.
“Survivors have been calling for reform to the military justice system for over a decade, Congress has finally heard that call for help and will act this year,” Congresswoman Speier said. “We now have broad, bipartisan support in both the House and Senate to take major non-military felonies, including sexual assault, out of the chain of command and empower independent military prosecutors with the crucial decision on whether to try a servicemember. Removing this longstanding and obvious conflict of interest will give more victims the confidence to come forward and result in greater accountability for perpetrators. This is a crucial first step for delivering justice to America’s brave servicemembers and ensuring that SPC Guillén’s name and spirit live on in that quest for justice. Congress must pass this crucial legislation without delay.”
“The Congress remains horrified and outraged at the murder of Vanessa Guillén. Justice is needed for Vanessa, and for every servicemember facing sexual assault or other serious crimes in our armed forces,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “That is why I am honored to join Congresswoman Jackie Speier for the introduction of the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which will make key improvements to the military’s justice system. We must swiftly pass this legislation and make it the law of the land, so we can ensure that no servicemember or family will ever have to endure such horrors as they serve.”
"Sexual assault is a violent crime that violates a person’s basic human rights. As Co-Chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Caucus, I join Congresswoman Jackie Speier to introduce this landmark, bipartisan legislation in the House," I said. "I want to congratulate Senator Gillibrand on the profound support she’s achieved for this bill. This bipartisan, bicameral coalition shows how this legislation has evolved over the years to protect our men and women in uniform.”
I continued, “By moving the decision to prosecute felony-level, complex criminal cases away from the unit commander, this bill will allow sexual assault cases to be fairly prosecuted, hold offenders accountable and protect victims, while allowing commanders to focus on mission success.” I concluded, “I look forward to these critical bipartisan reforms becoming law.”
“Sexual assault in our military is an epidemic and the current system is failing survivors. The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act takes important, commonsense steps to deliver justice for survivors of serious crimes and to prevent sexual assault in our armed forces,” Senator Gillibrand said. “I am honored to work with my longtime partner on this issue, Representative Speier, and this powerful bipartisan coalition of my House colleagues, to fight for military justice reform. This legislation has bipartisan supermajority support in the Senate, and I will be working with all of our supporters to ensure that it is brought up for a full vote in both chambers and signed into law.”
“Our military justice system is failing servicemembers of color and survivors of sexual assault. The young women and men who wear the uniform and protect our country deserve a system that provides fairness and equal justice. It’s time for comprehensive reform,” Congressman Brown said. “This legislation is an important step forward in tackling the serious systemic disparities and disproportionate rate of punishment against servicemembers of color. We need to create a culture in our military and its justice system that protects all those who answer the call to serve and reflects our values. We owe it to our servicemembers to get this done.”
“As a 24-year Army veteran, I understand the trauma that too many of our servicemembers have endured. What happened to Vanessa, and has happened to so many others, is tragic, and we must do more to keep our servicemembers safe and get them the justice they deserve,” Congresswoman Miller-Meeks said. “I am proud to join such a large and bipartisan group of members to introduce the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act to reform our military justice system for the better. This system has been broken for too long, and the time to act is now.”
“We owe it to the military members who are victims of violent crimes and sexual assault to update a system that for too long has failed to deliver justice,” Congresswoman Luria said. “As a 20-year Navy veteran, this bipartisan legislation will strengthen accountability in military justice. I am proud to stand with my colleagues, and with the brave survivors, in support of these needed changes.”
“This bill named in honor of Vanessa Guillén, seeks to empower military attorneys to make prosecutorial decisions, improve the chain of command's ability to maintain unit readiness and cohesion, and ensure every Servicemember is equipped to prevent what happened to Vanessa Guillén,” Congressman Kelly said. “This bill will establish systemic procedures for leaders, soldiers, and military attorneys that will decrease bias, expand training, and accountability. The military is nothing without its servicemembers. This bill will ensure the military is equipped to bring the same amount of disciplined execution it devotes to training people to protecting our military workforce.”
“SPC Vanessa Guillén’s murder shocked our nation and shed new light on the rising epidemic of unchecked harassment, assault, and retaliation throughout our military,” Congresswoman Escobar said. “Vanessa’s memory sparked a movement, and I am honored to co-lead the introduction of the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act to deliver justice for survivors and protect those who bravely put their lives on the line for our country.”
“The issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue – it’s an American issue. We must strengthen the military’s ability to protect its most important resource, which is the people who willingly sign-up to protect all Americans,” Congressman Mullin said. “The Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act will also encourage survivors to come forward to report sexual assaults and sexual harassment and to provide justice. This is about protecting our men and women in uniform and I will keep fighting so no family has to go through what the Guillén family has gone through.”
“We will honor Vanessa’s memory today and always by working together to bring justice for her and other soldiers’ victim of sexual assault. I am proud to join Chairwoman Speier and Senator Gillibrand on this bipartisan and bicameral effort that would decrease bias and address impunity to achieve justice,” Congresswoman Garcia said. “We need to keep pushing for reform and improvement of the accountability mechanisms we are offering our soldiers to overcome abuse that shouldn’t happen in the first place. Our soldiers and their families, like the Guillen’s, are the force behind this change. We can’t fail them.”
“As Fort Bragg’s Congressman, I am proud to help lead this bipartisan legislation that seeks to end sexual assault in the military, hold violators accountable, and support survivors,” Congressman Hudson said. “Sexual assault is an affront to the values of our military and the nation they defend. We must accept that what we have tried in the past has not worked. We owe it to the victims like Vanessa Guillen to do everything we can to end this culture of sexual assault. Our men and women in uniform sacrifice every day to keep us safe and we have a responsibility to ensure all service members are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”