What are the Department of Defense proposals to reform the military justice system?
In December 2015, the Department of Defense sent a legislative proposal to Congress aimed at reforming the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The Military Justice Act of 2016 is intended to align the military justice system more closely with the civilian court system by making changes to court martial procedures and enhancing protections of victims’ rights. The measure comes in the wake of enhanced public and Congressional scrutiny of the sexual assault scandals that have tarnished the armed services.
In this regard, New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand had introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) in 2013 as an amendment to the National Defense Appropriations Act. The legislation was ultimately blocked by the Senate last June for the second year in a row. The senator reportedly said that she intends to continue championing the measure.
The Defense Department’s new initiative calls for changes to the court-martial jury system, sentencing reforms, and restructuring plea agreements. The following is a brief overview of the reforms.
Standard Courts-Martial Jury Size and Convictions
Because the current system only has minimum jury membership guidelines for court-martial proceedings, convictions tend to vary based on the jury size. If this measure is implemented, the standard jury size in capital general courts martial would be raised to 12, a non-capital jury size would be raised to eight, and a special court martial would require four members.
Moreover, current UCMJ conviction standards mandate a two-thirds minimum number of votes and failure to reach that minimum leads to an acquittal. Based on the new jury sizes, the number of votes required for a conviction in all cases would be raised to 75 percent, while a capital case (that could result in the death penalty) would require a unanimous vote.
The Military Justice Act would lead to widespread changes in court-martial penalties. Currently, the system allows juries to impose sentences which often lead to varied outcomes unless there are mandatory minimum confinement sentences in play. Other penalties include punitive discharges, fines, restrictions and even death (in capital cases).
The reform measure calls for judicial sentencing in all cases in an effort to better align military sentencing practices with federal and state civil practices. Judicial sentencing determinations, combined with sentencing parameters, are designed to lead to uniformity throughout the branches of the armed services, albeit the parameters ultimately require presidential approval.
Restructuring Plea Agreements
The current plea agreement system requires a number of steps and sentencing limitations that entail lengthy negotiations. The reform measure is designed to streamline the process and empower judges to override unreasonable plea agreements. The goal is to have more transparency in the process and, in particular, “give a more powerful voice to sexual assault victims.”
In the final analysis, the military still requires its own code and system of justice and it is uncertain what the outcome of this initiative will be. Nonetheless, the reform measure floated by military brass is another step in an effort to align the system with the civilian courts that has been ongoing for the last two decades. In the meantime, if you are a member of the armed services and facing a court-martial under the current Uniform Code of Military Justice, you should consult with a qualified court-martial defense attorney.