2019 UCMJ Overhaul: What it means for Service Members

Military LawThe Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is located in Chapter 37 of the United States Code.¹It is Federal law that applies to the U.S. Military. The UCMJ “defines the military justice system and lists criminal offenses under military law.”² On January 1, 2019, major changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice took effect.³ According to the United States Army these changes include: “modernizing definitions for many offenses, adjusting maximum penalties, standardizing court-martial panels, creating new computer-crime laws, and much more.”4 A recent Military Times headline describes these changes as “the biggest update to UCMJ in decades”.5

Significant criminal offense changes include:

  • Replacing the offense of adultery with “extra-marital sexual conduct.” The offense was also broadened to include all types of sexual acts.
  • Adding penalties to those in “positions of special trust” that abuse authority over recruits and trainees in Article 93a.
  • New cyber crimes in Article 123.
  • A new fraud crime in Article 12a relating to credit and debit card fraud.
  • The addition of cyberstalking in Article 130.
  • A modern definition for the crime of burglary; and
  • A new offense for illegal retaliation in Article 132.6

Other major changes include:

  • Expanded ability of a bench trial to hear more court martial cases. This change will allow more cases to be tried by a single judge instead of a panel.
  • Increased subpoena power given to military judges. This change is important because it allows military judges the ability to get access to records in cases where normally those types of records would not be easy to access; and
  • An increased penalty for “wearing unauthorized medals of valor.”7

Before the recent changes went into effect on January 1, 2019, there has been some high-profile debate about the current state of military justice. This debate has included critiques of how much punishment commanders were handing out by then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.8  A scandal of active duty marines sharing nude pictures of female colleagues garnered public attention in March, 2017.9  Congress has been particularly concerned about revenge porn and other crimes of a sexual nature in the Military.10 These 2019 changes to the UCMJ are responses in part to these and other concerns about the current system of military justice.

As in many areas of the law, some pundits will claim the recent changes are an excellent step forward. Others will claim the changes were insufficient. In my opinion, many of the changes are positive in that they modernize several of the criminal offense definitions in the UCMJ to better reflect our changing society. These changes may also allow commanders more discretion in keeping good order and discipline in their formations.


1 https://jsc.defense.gov/Portals/99/Documents/UCMJAsOfFY17NDAA.pdf?ver=2017-02-07-123603-210

2 https://www.military.com/join-armed-forces/the-uniform-code-of-military-justice-ucmj.html

3 See https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/01/15/heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-biggest-update-to-ucmj-in-decades; https://taskandpurpose.com/military-crimes-ucmj-changes-2019; https://www.army.mil/article/215594/2019_brings_changes_to_military_justice_system

4 https://www.army.mil/article/215594/2019_brings_changes_to_military_justice_system

5 https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/01/15/heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-biggest-update-to-ucmj-in-decades/

6 https://www.army.mil/article/215594/2019_brings_changes_to_military_justice_system; https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/01/15/heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-biggest-update-to-ucmj-in-decades/

7 https://www.army.mil/article/215594/2019_brings_changes_to_military_justice_system

8 https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2018/09/10/ucmj-crackdown-why-mattis-thinks-commanders-have-gone-soft-on-misconduct

9 https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2017/09/20/congress-poised-to-outlaw-revenge-porn-in-the-military/

10 https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2017/09/20/congress-poised-to-outlaw-revenge-porn-in-the-military

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