President Biden signed an executive order making sexual harassment a crime under military law, a change prompted by lawmakers’ growing frustration at the military’s inability to tackle the problem, reports the Wall Street Journal. Under the order, troops can be charged under Article 134 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which allows prosecution of crimes specified the president. Under the current code, there is no charge for sexual harassment. Instead, military prosecutors have used other sections to charge troops with crimes, including violating a general order, dereliction of duty or maltreatment of a subordinate, the latter in cases where a service member harassed someone of lower rank.
Biden’s order “cleans things up for prosecutors. Before, if there was a gap in the law, they had to draft their own charging language,” said Eric Carpenter, a former Army lawyer and a military law professor at Florida International University. “It also puts service members on notice that the president and the Department of Defense are taking these issues seriously.” For the past year, the military has called combating sexual assault and harassment a priority, but internal reports concluded that the number of instances increased during that time. There were 7,816 reported cases of sexual assault during fiscal year 2020, nine fewer cases than those reported the previous year but more than double the 3,327 reported in 2010. Last year, Biden said he backed removing sexual harassment and assault cases from the chain of command and handing them to independent military lawyers. The case of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who reported being harassed by supervisors before she was killed in 2020 by another soldier, highlighted the military’s failing at curbing harassment and assault.