Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Thursday, June 17, 2021, on…
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, June 17, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday he would work with Congress to shift prosecution of sexual assaults away from military commanders. 

In a statement expressing support for recommendations made by an independent review commission, Austin said he also backs changing the prosecution process for related crimes such as domestic violence. 

“I support this as well, given the strong correlation between these sorts of crimes and the prevalence of sexual assault,” Austin said. 

The Pentagon leader is due to appear Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing on the department’s budget. 

Sexual assault in the U.S. military has long been a target for reform, including by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who has put forth legislation that would put independent prosecutors in charge of handling sexual assault cases as well as other major crimes. 

A 2018 Pentagon survey estimated that more than 20,000 U.S. service members experienced sexual assault that year.

FILE - The Pentagon building is seen in Washington.
Reports of Sexual Assault in the US Military Spike
The Pentagon says reports of military sexual assaults jumped by 13% last year, but an anonymous survey of service members suggests the problem is vastly larger. The survey results found that more than 20,000 service members said they experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact, and only about a third of those filed a formal sexual assault report. The survey covers 2018 and was released Thursday. The survey total is about 37% higher than two years ago, when one was last done.

Austin said Tuesday the issue calls for greater accountability and for the Pentagon to change the way it approaches prevention and services for victims. 

“I appreciate the support that the Department’s civilian and military leaders have provided to the commission, and the thoughtfulness with which they have advised me as we develop effective ways to implement the changes we need to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment from our ranks,” Austin said.  “As I made clear on my first full day in office, this is a leadership issue.  And we will lead.  Our people depend upon it.  They deserve nothing less.”