Punitive UCMJ Articles

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is the U.S. military’s legal canon. It establishes laws which all service members of every branch of the armed forces are required to abide by. Altogether, the UCMJ contains over 100 unique punitive offenses, each with its own potential maximum sentence and some with a mandatory minimum sentence.

The Manual for Courts-Martial is the official handbook of the UCMJ. It describes the elements required to convict a service member of an offense, as well as a range of possible sentencing options if a soldier is convicted. The manual is freely available online for service members.

What Are the Articles in the UCMJ?

What Is the Purpose of the Uniform Code of Military Justice?

Soldier at the ocean facing UCMJ penaltiesThe purpose of the UCMJ is to ensure order is faithfully maintained among the ranks of the United States military, to establish rules which govern the conduct of military service members in wartime and peacetime, and to initiate punishment in the event that a soldier acts in a manner that goes against those rules.

The military requires service members to perform duties that a civilian would rarely—if ever—be requested to carry out. Military service members have unique responsibilities; failing in those responsibilities may have severe consequences. It’s for this reason that the military has a separate justice code—to ensure that service members conduct themselves in a way that would not bring dishonor or harm to the military or to the country.

Many of the article offenses do not have civilian counterparts. They are specific to the circumstances of military life and military duties. And they are in place to ensure order is maintained among the ranks and fair punishment is meted out in the event that those rules are broken.

Are Civilians Subject to the UCMJ?

Civilians have their cases tried in civil and criminal courts that fall under state or federal jurisdiction. They are rarely subject to the laws and sentencing found under the UCMJ and are therefore not often seen as defendants in a general court-martial or summary court-martial.

Some exceptions may include:

  • A civilian contractor working in a foreign country on a military base may be tried in military courts (a military contractor for example).
  • The dependents of a service member who accompany the soldier overseas may be subject to military courts (as was the case of Madsen v. Kinsella, where an Air Force lieutenant was killed by his wife while he was stationed in Germany).
  • Certain offenses (such as espionage) may fall under the military’s jurisdiction.
  • Martial law goes into effect.

With those exceptions in mind, it is still quite rare for a civilian to be tried in a military court. This is true for offenses which are found under both criminal and UCMJ law codes (such as murder or driving under the influence), and it is true for veteran members of the armed forces (UNLESS that veteran is receiving retirement benefits, in which case they are still under UCMJ jurisdiction).

When Was it Created?

The Uniform Code of Military Justice was signed into law by Harry S. Truman on May 6th, 1950. It was the first military code of law passed by Congress which encompassed every branch of America’s armed forces: the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. Prior to the UCMJ, the United States relied on aging congressional laws known as the Articles of War, which had governed the military’s legal justice system for over 100 years.

The UCMJ has seen a number of revisions over the last 68 years, and the Manual for Courts-Martial has been updated a half a dozen times since 2000.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Many Articles Exist?

There are 146 articles in the U.C.M.J, along with 12 sub-articles, bringing the number to 158. Not all of these articles are punitive. Some define legal concepts and review jurisdictions and have nothing to do with an offense. Some, such as Article 77, define who may or may not be held criminally liable as a principal of a particular crime. There are 61 punitive articles within the UCMJ: Articles 77 to 134.

What Is the Maximum Sentence Possible?

Death is the maximum possible sentence that a military court can give out. With that said, every punitive article proposes a range of sentencing, and the death penalty is quite rare. Some articles, such as Article 118 for Murder, carry with it the possibility of the death sentence or life sentence in prison without the opportunity for parole.

Where Can I Find Information About the Punitive Articles of the UCMJ?

The Manual for Courts Martial provides maximum punishments, rules of evidence and what constitutes a violation of each article under the U.C.M.J. You can also find information specific to each Article of the UCMJ here on the Bilecki & Tipon website.

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