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Biden orders changes to how sexual assaults are prosecuted in the military

Under the order, independent military prosecutors, rather than military commanders, will make key decisions in cases involving serious offenses such as sexual assault, domestic violence and murder.
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on July 19, 2023.
President Joe Biden is implementing congressionally mandated changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice on how sexual assault and other serious crimes are prosecuted in the armed services.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will sign an executive order Friday to implement reforms passed by Congress that the White House says will "significantly strengthen how the military handles sexual assault cases."

Instead of military commanders making key decisions in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, murder and other serious offenses, the executive order transfers that authority to specialized, independent military prosecutors, the White House said in a release detailing the changes.

The order amends the Uniform Code of Military Justice to implement the changes passed by Congress in an annual defense policy bill for fiscal 2022. The White House described the shift as representing "the most significant transformation of the military justice system" since the uniform military justice framework was established in 1950.

"The historic reforms announced today will better protect victims and ensure prosecutorial decisions are fully independent from the chain of the command," the White House said, adding that the changes build on recommendations from an independent review commission that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin set up at Biden’s direction.

Specifically, the executive order will lay out rules for the independent military prosecutors working at newly established special trial counsel offices, who will decide whether to prosecute offenses such as murder, sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

The order will make clear that these decisions are binding and independent from the chain of command, the White House said. The order will also modernize "procedures to better protect victims and promote fairness before, during and after court-martial proceedings," it said.

Prosecutors at the special trial counsel offices, which were established last July, will assume authority for decisions on offenses such as sexual assault and domestic violence at the end of this year, the White House said. That authority will expand in January 2025 to include sexual harassment cases.