All sexual assault cases in the California military will be transferred from the chain of command and the court-martial system to local police and prosecutors under a law signed Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown that is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation.
The move — which does not affect U.S. military branches such as the Marine Corps and Coast Guard — comes amid a national debate over sexual abuse in the armed forces. Many victims' advocates say the military justice system is failing.
Sexual assault cases involving active-duty members of the state military are already typically handled in local civilian courts, as the California Military Department isn't equipped to pursue the cases. The new law codifies that practice starting in 2015, and is envisioned as a trend-setter.
"We know that the debate in Washington D.C. and the efforts in the nation's capital have been difficult for those trying to separate the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases from the chain of command in the military," said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who authored the bill.
"California can be the first state in the nation to do so and it is my hope that we set an example not just for other states, but build enough momentum into achieving this at a federal level."
The California Military Department is comprised of the National Guard, the State Military Reserve and the Naval Militia. Of its force of 21,000, about 5,000 members are full-time, said Lt. Col. Darrin Bender, director of government affairs.
The department has had 14 to 15 reports of sexual assault each year since 2011, Bender said.
Currently, the state military typically defers to local police and district attorneys in felony cases such as sexual assaults. But local jurisdictions can, under the current law, decline to take on a case and pass the case back to the military. Bender said that in such cases the state military would have to put together a temporary court-martial system - or drop the matter.
"We don't have a court house, we don't have judges, we don't have full-time legal staff," he said.
Bender said he, like Padilla, hopes that other state militaries follow suit. "Even though we're dealing with small numbers here, in the long run, this will result in more bad people getting punished, and that's a good thing," he said.