Those who are interested in national security law and military justice should take note that the most significant changes to the U.S. military justice system in almost 70 years will soon go into effect. We have not seen change on this scale since the adoption of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951. The amendments that go into effect on January 1, 2019, are significant in both depth and breadth and, like the initial reforms in the UCMJ, they reflect a continuing “civilianization” of military justice.
The most recent changes came about largely as a result of two influences. The first is the political and public pressure the military has received over the past several years about its inability to provide meaningful protection to victims of sexual assault within the armed forces. The second is the sustained pressure that advocates for reform have applied to the military and policymakers over several years. Both of these influences created an atmosphere in which Congress, in a surprisingly by-partisan effort, undertook sweeping reform.
The overarching result of the reforms is to make the military justice system look more and more like its civilian counterparts. This theme is clearly reflected in a number of structural amendments that fall into three broad categories.
The first category of changes is intended to make the military justice system more transparent and more accountable. Some specific changes include segmented sentencing, greater allowance of judicial sentencing in non-capital cases, and greater access to court documents by the public and by crime victims.
The second category is intended to enhance the fairness and efficiency of the pre-trial, trial, and appellate process. Changes under this category include a greater role for military judges before the case is referred to trial, standardized size of military panels, greater opportunity for victim input into case disposition, transformation of automatic appeals to appeals as of right, and establishing harmless error review for guilty pleas.
The third category of changes focuses on improving the effectiveness of the punitive articles. Changes here include migrating a number of Article 134 offenses to the enumerated punitive articles, consolidation and organization of a number of punitive articles into like-offenses, modernizing certain offenses, and adding new offenses such as fraudulent use of debit and credit cards.
The 2019 Manual for Courts-Martial was recently made available by the Joint Service Committee and can be found here. These changes are also available on our website topics. As these changes take effect there will be much to closely watch and see how effectively these sweeping reforms achieve these important goals.