Pentagon proposes UCMJ changes in bill draft sent to Congress
WASHINGTON — Servicemembers convicted of crimes under the military’s justice system would be punished by a judge guided by specific sentencing standards and would have expanded rights to appeal those convictions, under proposed legislation authored by the Pentagon.
In the Military Justice Act of 2016, a 235-page proposed bill the Defense Department sent to Congress on Monday, the Pentagon recommended comprehensive reform of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for the first time in more than three decades. The policy changes aim “to improve the quality and efficiency of the military justice system,” reads the bill that includes more than three dozen major policy changes.
The legislation proposal follows a two-year Pentagon review of the UCMJ and its Manual for Courts-Martial ordered by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in October 2013.
“It has been more than 30 years since the department has undertaken to examine and update the UCMJ in a systematic fashion,” Hagel said at the time. “The review we are now conducting will help ensure the continued effectiveness of our armed forces and the fair administration of justice for our servicemembers.”
Many of the changes bring the UCMJ in line with policies in the civilian federal court system. They include requiring military judges to provide written judgments at the end of a court-martial, establishing parameters for judges to consider when sentencing servicemembers to confinement, and granting all convicted troops access to judicial review.
Other proposed reforms include establishing selection criteria for military judges and mandating how long they serve in those positions, creating standard jury sizes in non-capital courts-martial, and adding new offenses to the UCMJ, including the fraudulent use of credit and debit cards.
The proposed changes were designed to ensure military law continues to “promote justice (and) to assist in maintaining good order and discipline,” while it also remains recognizable as “fair and just” to uniformed servicemembers and the American people, according to a report released on Monday with the proposed legislation.
Though some recommended policies were similar to those in civilian law, the report’s authors stated military justice cannot simply mirror the civilian federal judicial system.
“The proposals recommend aligning certain procedures with federal civilian practice in instances where they will enhance fairness and efficiency and where the rationale for military-specific practices has dissipated,” the report stated. “… This report’s proposals recommend retaining military-specific practices where the comparable civilian practice would be incompatible with the military’s purpose, function, and mission, or would not further the goals of justice, discipline, and efficiency in the military context.”
For example, the report stated, “Crimes committed by military members … have the potential to seriously damage unit cohesion by destroying the bonds of trust critical to successful mission accomplishment.”
If approved by Congress and signed into law, the Pentagon’s proposed changes would be implemented within about five years.
“The department looks forward to working with Congress as lawmakers consider the recommendations,” a Pentagon release stated.