Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, to announce that the Pentagon will act upon the 90-day commission recommendations on sexual assault and harassment in the military. Credit: Andrew Harnik / AP

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

In a move long sought by critics of how the military handles allegations of sexual assaults and harassment, those cases will be removed from the military chain of command and handed over to a new special victims prosecution office by 2027, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.

The change is one of several the Pentagon plans to make based on recommendations from an independent review commission on military sexual assaults launched just weeks after the inauguration of President Joe Biden and the appointment of Lloyd Austin III as defense secretary.

“This administration has placed an unprecedentedly high priority on this challenge,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks at a Pentagon news conference. “We have now created that way ahead called the implementation road map, and Secretary Austin has approved it in its entirety.”

The road map features sweeping changes to how the military handles sexual assault and harassment complaints from service members, from how the offenses are investigated and prosecuted to the support systems for victims.

The changes will come via a four-tiered system, with each tier dependent on the implementation of the previous. Each branch of the military must begin implementing their plans for the first tier by Dec. 15. Full implementation of the first tier must be completed by 2027; implementation of the full slate must be accomplished by 2030, according to the plan.

The priority recommendations under the first tier include removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command and establishing the Offices of Special Victims Prosecutors to handle the cases. For sexual harassment cases, it also calls for independent trained investigators and the mandatory discharge of those who engage in sexual harassment.

Another big change is taking the jobs of command-level sexual assault response coordinators — which are often collateral duties of officers with other full-time responsibilities — and making them permanent, specialized positions.

Other changes include those affecting the military justice process specifically, such as a revision to how court-martial panels — the military equivalent of a jury — are selected.

Advocates have long agitated for these changes. But the leader of one prominent advocacy group said that without legislative changes, it might be difficult to make effective, permanent reforms. Those legislative changes are included in next year’s proposed defense spending bills now in the House and Senate.

“There’s a sense that we’ve achieved a lot in the survivor community,” said Don Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders, a nonprofit human rights organization focused on eliminating military sexual assault. “I applaud (the Pentagon) for saying they’re going to do this but they need legislative fixes.”

Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel who once served as the service’s chief prosecutor, said that unless changes are also made to the Uniform Code of Military Justice — the law that governs the military — it could be difficult to convict offenders under the Pentagon’s plan.

“Our military appellate courts have held military and government prosecutors to a very high standard,” he said. “You run the risk of having cases thrown out if they don’t do it right.”

Some of the same changes the Pentagon announced that are part of next year’s military budget being debated in Congress have tighter timelines, Christensen said. The annual military funding bill, or National Defense Authorization Act, is among the largest Congress passes each year and changes to it can come late in the process, which could drag into December.

This year’s NDAA was enacted on Jan. 1, 2021, overriding a veto by then-President Donald Trump.

In the meantime, while waiting on the law, Christensen said the Pentagon should begin getting the right people in the special prosecutor’s offices since it will take time to get people training and experience with these cases.

“If I were them I’d be focused on getting that done while Congress gets the legislation done,” he said. “But, it’s definitely a good day. Things are going in the right direction.”

Story by Andrew Dyer, The San Diego Union-Tribune.