Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, at a news conference on Thursday, Nov....

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, at a news conference on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, pressed for passage of legislation to change how the military justice system handles sex-assault cases. Credit: U.S. Senate / Renee Bouchard

The U.S. military must change the way it addresses sexual assault, putting independent military prosecutors in charge of such cases instead of commanders within the hierarchy, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and a bipartisan coalition of senators said Thursday.

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), at a news conference in Washington, D.C., that also included advocates and victims, underscored efforts to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act — legislation she has introduced for several years running.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault remain pervasive problems throughout the military despite previous reform efforts and revisions, Gillibrand said.

“Our commanders have tough enough jobs,” she said. “Let trained, experienced prosecutors take this burden off of their hands.”

The measure would significantly change the way military sexual-assault prosecutions are handled, shifting decision-making authority on those cases from the chain of command to independent, trained military prosecutors.

Gillibrand has said that change would professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes such as sexual assault, removing the fear that victims describe in deciding whether to report harassment and assault.

“There is still not good order and discipline in our military,” Gillibrand said Thursday, adding that the current system “protects predators — it fails to protect victims.”

The proposal applies to anyone who comes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the foundation of military law, including the U.S. service academies for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

Locally, Gillibrand also has sought reforms in the way sexual harassment and sexual assault are handled at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Midshipmen there are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The 74-year-old institution — which educates men and women for careers in the commercial shipping industry — is the only one of the federal service academies that comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation. Within that agency, it is operated by the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD.

Gillibrand, along with Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), also introduced legislation earlier this year that aims to subject USMMA to Title IX, which governs gender discrimination laws in place at most colleges and universities, following yearslong concerns about the school’s handling of sexual misconduct.

Newsday has reported that sexual assault and sexual harassment, bullying and coercion have persisted at USMMA for nearly a decade, despite the government’s own records of complaints and corrective efforts.

Earlier this month, retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, who heads MARAD, and Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the Kings Point academy’s superintendent, told a congressional oversight panel that the Department of Justice is investigating alleged sexual misconduct on a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy soccer team bus in September 2016.

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