In the United States, military justice refers to the set of laws by which members of the U.S. Armed Forces must abide. These laws were established by the US Congress in 1950 when it enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice, known as UCMJ. All servicemen and servicewomen must follow this code, which contains not only basic criminal laws but also laws specific to the duties of soldiers. The main method of enforcing military justice is through the court-martial process, which ensures a fair trial for all enlistees while enforcing the laws contained in the UCMJ.
From the foundation of the U.S. in 1776 through World War II in the 1940s, different branches of U.S. military service were governed by different laws. World War II produced huge amounts of court-martial proceedings and there were many complaints from servicemen about unfair treatment. Dismayed by this situation, the U.S. Congress took steps to rectify the status of military justice by enacting the UCMJ, which established the military criminal code that governs all branches of service.
The UCMJ essentially banned many offenses found in the U.S, Constitution, crimes like murder, theft, or use of illegal substances. In addition, it identified crimes which were unique to military justice. Some of these offenses include dereliction of duty, going absent without leave, disrespect to superiors, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Crimes made in times of war, such as spying or misbehavior before the enemy, were also identified.
All service members fall under the jurisdiction of the UCMJ. Although prisoners of war and members of certain organizations that may be involved with the military are subject to this code, it mostly applies to active duty personnel. In most cases, this means that the code applies from the time an individual enlists to the time he or she receives a valid discharge. Since U.S. military personnel are deployed all over the world, the UCMJ can hold jurisdiction over actions in foreign countries as well, although the host country may become involved if its laws are broken in the process.
If a soldier fails to live up to some aspect of the UCMJ or breaks one of more of the laws therein, he or she can be subject to the military court proceeding known as a court-martial. The court-martial process follows many of the same rules found within the U.S. civilian judicial process, such as the right of the accused to an attorney and a trial before a judge and jury. Types of courts martial include summary courts-martial for minor offenses, special courts-martial for intermediate offenses, and general courts-martial for the most serious offenses.