Criminal Justice

As a former prosecutor, Senator Leahy has real-world experience working on criminal justice issues.  His role as Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee allows him to apply this experience directly to important criminal justice topics.

A top priority for Senator Leahy is keeping our communities safe.  He authored the bipartisan Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.  This important legislation, which was signed into law by President Obama on March 7, 2013, significantly strengthens the ability of the federal government, the States, law enforcement and service providers to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.  The final passage of the Violence Against Woman Reauthorization Act included the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  This trafficking legislation will improve cooperation among federal agencies providing victim services, give law enforcement additional tools and resources to investigate and prosecute human trafficking crimes and further the victim-centered approach that has been crucial to combating human trafficking.  Both pieces of legislation will save and improve the lives of victims and survivors of abuse.

Senator Leahy believes it is also critical to ensure that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable.  Senator Leahy is leading efforts to reauthorize the Justice for All Act, which included his Innocence Protection Act.  The Justice for All Act of 2004 increased resources devoted to DNA and other forensic technology, established safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions and enhanced protections for crime victims.  The bipartisan reauthorization of this legislation would continue and improve the programs created by this historic legislation, including strengthening key rights for crime victims.

Senator Leahy has long worked to eliminate wrongful convictions and improve the quality of indigent defense, through measures such as the Innocence Protection Act and the Gideon’s Promise Act. The Innocence Protection Act includes the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program, which provides assistances to State and local law enforcement officials to ensure they have the necessary tools to find and convict criminals, while improving access to DNA testing for the wrongly convicted.  More than 300 people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison have had their lives restored due to DNA exonerations and more than 130 of the real perpetrators of those crimes have been found.

Senator Leahy has a long legacy of working on sentencing-related issues.  In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act.  The Fair Sentencing Act was an historic piece of legislation that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which had resulted in significantly longer sentences for many African Americans than similarly situated white defendants.  The legislation was a dramatic step toward making federal sentencing policy more just.  Senator Leahy was proud to be an original cosponsor of that bill.

Continuing his work on sentencing-related issues, Senator Leahy introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 this Congress.  Introduced with Senator Rand Paul, this bipartisan legislation would expand a current "safety valve" provision that allows judges to avoid mandatory minimum penalties for first-time, low-level federal drug offenders to all federal crimes subject to mandatory minimum penalties.  This would restore sentencing discretion to judges in cases in which a mandatory minimum is unnecessary and counterproductive.  Senator Leahy believes that that our increasing use of mandatory minimums at the federal level, without evidence to support that they are effective at reducing crime, has resulted in unjust and irrationally long sentences that waste taxpayer dollars.  As a result, our federal prison population has ballooned to an unsustainable size and cost. Nearly one third of the Justice Department’s budget is now spent on prisons. This means less money to hire federal prosecutors and FBI agents, less support to state and local law enforcement and less funding for crime prevention, victim services and prisoner reentry programs.  Senator Leahy believes that in a time of cost-cutting we cannot afford to waste more and more taxpayer dollars on over-incarceration.

Senator Leahy has worked on forensic science reform legislation.  In February of 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a report asserting that the field of forensic science had significant problems that urgently need addressing.  Senator Leahy worked with prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, judges, forensic practitioners, academic experts and many others to learn what is happening in the forensics field and what needs to be improved.  In 2011 and 2014, Senator Leahy introduced the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act to strengthen and improve the criminal justice system by helping to ensure that evidence derived from forensic science analysis is accurate, credible and scientifically grounded.  Senator Leahy is continuing his work this Congress to protect crime victims and make certain that convictions are based on sound evidence.

Senator Leahy has worked to secure strong funding for Drug Free Communities (DFC),  a grant program that helps communities with limited resources address their drug problems with solutions that are tailored to fit the unique needs of each community.  These programs have been highly successful and DFC-funded communities have achieved significant reductions in youth alcohol and marijuana use.  Substance abuse is a major problem across the country, and Senator Leahy works to ensure that the federal government is providing States with the resources they need to combat it.

Senator Leahy is a longtime supporter of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which for nearly 30 years has spearheaded efforts to locate and recover missing children and raise public awareness about how to prevent child abduction, molestation and sexual exploitation.  Senator Leahy worked to ensure passage of the Missing Children’s Assistance Reauthorization Act, which reauthorized funding for NCMEC through the year 2018.

Senator Leahy led the effort to reauthorize the Second Chance Act.  Large numbers of people are released from jails and prisons each year.  Without training, support and education, inmates are much more likely toreturn to a life of committing crimes.   The Second Chance Act provides grants to help prepare these inmates for reentry into society.  Lowering recidivism rates lowers prison costs and improves public safety by giving federal, state and local government additional tools to help inmates successfully reintegrate into their communities upon release.  As the senior most member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, Senator Leahy worked to secure funding for the Second Chance Act.  In 2014, Vermont was one of five States to receive a $1 million Second Chance Act grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to meet statewide goals in reducing prison recidivism rates.

Senator Leahy strongly believes that it is important to prevent fraud and protect the whistleblowers who uncover it.  Senator Leahy authored the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, which strengthened tools and increased resources available to federal prosecutors to find, prosecute and jail those who commit financial fraud.  He authored legislation to combat health care fraud and cosponsored the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, which included much-needed enhanced whistleblower provisions for the intelligence community.  That bill, which became law in November 2012, contains a more inclusive definition of who qualifies as a whistleblower and more specific guidelines for their protection.  Senator Leahy will continue to advocate for strong whistleblower protections.