09.27.10

Leahy To Introduce Reauthorization Of Landmark Justice For All Act

WASHINGTON (Monday, Sept. 27, 2010) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will introduce legislation today to reauthorize the historic Justice for All Act, which was first enacted in 2004.  Leahy was the leading Democratic Senate sponsor of the law, which resulted from more than four years of bipartisan negotiations. 

The Justice for All Act made modest but rare reforms in the way the death penalty is used in the criminal justice system.  It also improved support services for crime victims, and provided important tools and assistance to help state and local governments use DNA evidence to convict guilty offenders and exonerate the innocent.   The Justice for All Reauthorization Act will extend, strengthen and improve many of the 2004 reforms.

“Today, we rededicate ourselves to building a criminal justice system in which the innocent remain free, the guilty are punished, and all sides have the tools, resources, and knowledge they need to advance the cause of justice,” said Leahy.  “Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system that keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our constitution.  This bill will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal.  I hope there will be strong bipartisan support for these efforts moving forward.”

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act will strengthen rights for crime victims and reauthorize several successful grant programs, including the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program and the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program.  These and other programs authorized under the Justice for All Act help state and local governments collect and process DNA evidence. 

One key provision in the Leahy-authored reauthorization bill is a requirement that the National Institute of Justice develop practices and protocols for the collection and processing of DNA evidence, including sexual assault evidence, and to make technical assistance available to support state and local governments wishing to adopt and implement the practices.  The reauthorization bill also improves the Debbie Smith grant program to allow funding to go towards reducing backlogs in the collection and processing of DNA evidence by law enforcement, prosecutors and laboratories to help stop DNA evidence backlogs at every stage in the process. 

The reauthorization bill also extends important parts of the Innocence Protection Act (IPA).  Leahy championed the IPA for more than four years before it was incorporated in the 2004 Justice for All Act.  As a former prosecutor, Leahy saw both sides of the crisis that DNA testing has illuminated in clearing those wrongfully convicted.  The IPA includes key grant programs to help state and local law enforcement to ensure they have the tools necessary to convict criminals and exonerate the innocent, and today’s legislation includes new initiatives to improve those programs and to help prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place.

“The Innocence Protection Act became a key component of the Justice for All Act, along with important provisions to ensure that crime victims would have the rights and protections they need and deserve,” said Leahy.  “These and other important criminal justice provisions made the Justice for All Act a groundbreaking achievement in criminal justice reform.”

Leahy continued, “The programs created by the Justice For All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize them.  Unfortunately, the Committee’s hearings and recent headlines have made clear that simply reauthorizing the existing law is not enough.  Significant problems remain, and we must work together to address them.”

Provisions included in the Justice for All Reauthorization Act will also:

  • Strengthen crime victims’ rights;
  • Reauthorize several DNA evidence-related grant programs, including the Paul Coverdell Forensic Sciences Improvement Grant program and the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program;
  • Eliminate the requirement that individuals who waive their rights in a plea agreement also waive their rights to post-conviction DNA testing at the federal level, and adjust the evidence preservation requirements states must meet to obtain grants through the Bloodsworth Program to help more states comply, while still requiring meaningful preservation of key evidence;
  • Direct the National Institute of Justice to promulgate best practices for evidence retention and to assist state, local and tribal governments wishing to adopt the best practices;
  • Require the states to develop and update annually a strategic plan detailing how grants received under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program will improve the administration of justice;
  • Require the Attorney General to provide technical assistance to state and local governments requesting support to meet their Sixth Amendment obligations, and make it unlawful for any governmental authority to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of their rights to assistance of counsel as protected by the Sixth Amendment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has held hearings this Congress examining how to best ensure the effective use of DNA evidence in prosecuting crime, particularly through the Debbie Smith Act and the Innocence Protection Act.  The text of the Justice For All Reauthorization Act of 2010 is available upon request.

# # # # #

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Introduction Of The “Justice For All Reauthorization Act Of 2010”
September 27, 2010

Today, I am proud to introduce the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2010, together with Senator Franken.  The Justice for All Act, passed in 2004, was an unprecedented bipartisan piece of criminal justice legislation and the most significant step Congress had taken in many years to improve the quality of justice in this country, and to restore public confidence in the integrity of the American justice system.  After several hearings and much work, today we begin in earnest the process of building on that foundation to go still further to ensure our criminal justice system works fairly and effectively for all Americans.

In 2000, I introduced the Innocence Protection Act , which aimed to improve the administration of justice by ensuring that defendants in the most serious cases receive competent representation and, where appropriate, access to post-conviction DNA testing necessary to prove their innocence in those cases where the system got it grievously wrong. 

The Innocence Protection Act became a key component of the Justice for All Act, along with important provisions to ensure that crime victims would have the rights and protections they need and deserve, and that states and communities would take major steps to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits and give prompt justice for victims of sexual assault.  These and other important criminal justice provisions made the Justice for All Act a groundbreaking achievement in criminal justice reform.

The programs created by the Justice For All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize them.  Unfortunately, the Committee’s hearings and recent headlines have made clear that simply reauthorizing the existing law is not enough.  Significant problems remain, and we must work together to address them.

In too many communities around the country, large numbers of untested rape kids have come to light, many of which have not even made their way to crime labs.  It is unacceptable that rape victims must still live in fear and wait for justice.  We must act to fix this continuing problem. 

We have also seen too many cases of people found to be innocent after spending years in jail, and we have faced the harrowing possibility that the unthinkable may have happened:  the state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.  We must act to ensure that our criminal justice system works as it should so that relevant evidence is tested and considered and all defendants receive quality representation. 

I thank Senators Klobuchar and Franken for working with me on these important issues and helping to craft this important bill.  I also appreciate the Republican Senators, including Senators Sessions and Grassley, who have provided input for this bill and participated in the process.  I am confident that this legislation will be enacted in a bipartisan fashion, just as the original Justice for All Act did, and I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to reach that goal.

The original Justice for All Act included the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Program, which authorized significant funding to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits so that victims need not live in fear while kits languish in storage.  That program is named after Debbie Smith, who lived in fear for years after being attacked before her rape kit was tested and the perpetrator was caught.  She and her husband Rob have worked tirelessly to ensure that others need not experience the ordeal she went through.  I thank Debbie and Rob for their continuing help on this extremely important cause.

Since we passed this important law in 2004, the Debbie Smith Act has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars going to states for the testing of DNA samples to reduce backlogs.  I have worked with Senators of both parties to ensure full funding for the Debbie Smith Act each year.

As I have researched the problem of untested rape kits, there is one thing that I have heard again and again:  the Debbie Smith program has been working and is making a major difference.  I have heard from the Justice Department, the states, including Vermont, law enforcement, and victims’ advocates, that Debbie Smith grants have led to significant and meaningful backlog reductions and to justice for victims in jurisdictions across the country. 

Unfortunately, despite the good strides we have made and the significant Federal funding for these efforts, we have seen alarming reports of continuing backlogs.  A 2008 study found 12,500 untested rape kits in the Los Angeles area alone.  While Los Angeles has since made progress in addressing the problem, other cities have now reported backlogs almost as severe.  The Justice Department released a report last year finding that in 18 percent of open, unsolved rape cases, evidence had not even been submitted to a crime lab.

That Justice Department study gets to a key component of this problem that has not yet been addressed.  No matter how much money we send to crime labs for testing, if samples that could help close cases instead sit on the shelf in police evidence rooms and never make it to the lab, that money will do no good.  Police officers must understand the importance of testing this vital evidence and must learn when testing is appropriate and necessary.  In too many jurisdictions, rape kits taken from victims who put themselves through further hardship to take these samples – rape kits that could help law enforcement to get criminals off the street – are sitting untested. 

The bill we introduce today will finally address this part of the problem by mandating that the Department of Justice develop practices and protocols for the processing of DNA evidence and provide technical assistance to state and local governments to implement those protocols.  The bill authorizes funding to states and communities to reduce their rape kit backlogs at the law enforcement stage by training officers, improving practices, developing evidence tracking systems, and taking other key steps to make sure that this crucial evidence gets to the labs to be tested.

The bill will also help us get to the bottom of this problem by calling for the development of a standardized definition of “backlog,” covering both the law enforcement and lab stages, and by implementing public reporting requirements to help us to identify where the backlogs are.  It also takes steps to ensure that labs test DNA samples in the best order so that those samples which can help secure justice for rape victims are tested most quickly.  It will also put into place new accountability requirements to make sure that Debbie Smith Act money is being spent effectively and appropriately.

The bill makes important changes to existing law to ensure that no rape victims are ever required to pay for testing of their rape kits, and that these costs are covered with no strings attached.  Senator Franken has been a strong advocate of this important provision, and I thank him for his help.

We have also taken important new steps to ensure that defendants in serious cases receive adequate representation and, where appropriate, testing of relevant DNA samples.  As a former prosecutor, I have great faith in the men and women in law enforcement, and I know that in the vast majority of cases, our criminal justice system does work fairly and effectively.  I also know, however, that the system only works as it should when each side is well represented by competent and well-trained counsel, and when all relevant evidence is retained and tested.  Sadly, we learn regularly of defendants released after new evidence exonerates them.  We must do better.  It is an outrage when an innocent person is punished, and it is doubly an outrage that, in those cases, the guilty person remains on the streets, able to commit more crimes, which makes all of us less safe.

This legislation takes important new steps to ensure that all criminal defendants, including those who cannot afford a lawyer, receive constitutionally adequate representation.  It requires the Department of Justice to assist states that want help developing an effective and efficient system of indigent defense, and it establishes a cause of action for the Federal Government to step in when states are systematically failing to provide the representation called for in the constitution.

This is a reasonable measure that gives the states assistance and time needed to make necessary changes and seeks to provide an incentive for states to do so.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys recognize the importance of quality defense counsel.  Houston District Attorney Patricia Lykos testified, quite persuasively, before the Judiciary Committee about how competent defense attorneys help her do her job as a prosecutor even better.  I have also learned through this process that the most effective systems of indigent defense are not always the most expensive.  In some cases, making the necessary changes may also save states money.

This legislation will also help ensure that the innocent are not punished while the guilty remain free by strengthening Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program, one of the key programs created in the Innocence Protection Act.  Kirk Bloodsworth was a young man just out of the Marines when he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for a heinous crime that he did not commit.  He was the first person in the United States to be exonerated from a death row crime through the use of DNA evidence. 

This program provides grants to states for testing in cases like Kirk’s where someone has been convicted, but where significant DNA evidence was not tested.  The last administration resisted implementing the program for several years, but we worked hard to see the program put into place.  Now, money has gone out to a number of states, and the Committee has heard strong testimony that the program is making an impact.  The legislation we introduce today expands the very modest authorization of funds to this important program and clarifies the conditions set for this program so that participating states are required to preserve key evidence, which is crucial, but are required to do so in a way that is attainable and will allow more states to participate.

The bill also asks states to produce comprehensive plans for their criminal justice systems, which will help to ensure that criminal justice systems operate effectively as a whole and that all parts of the system work together and receive the resources they need.  The bill reauthorizes and improves key grant programs in a variety of areas throughout the criminal justice system.  Importantly, it increases authorized funding for the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant program, which is a vital program to assist forensic laboratories in performing the many forensic tests that are essential to solving crimes and prosecuting perpetrators.  I appreciate Senator Sessions’ longstanding support for this important program.

Finally, the legislation strengthens rights for victims of crime.  It gives crime victims an affirmative right to be informed of all of their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and other key laws, and it takes several steps to make it easier for crime victims to assert their legal rights in court.  I thank Senators Feinstein and Kyl for their leadership in this area and their assistance in developing these provisions.

In these times of tight budgets, it is important to note that this bill would make all of these improvements without increasing total authorized funding under the Justice For All Act and that many of these changes will help states, communities, and the Federal Government save money in the long term.

Today, we rededicate ourselves to building a criminal justice system in which the innocent remain free, the guilty are punished, and all sides have the tools, resources, and knowledge they need to advance the cause of justice.  Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system which keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our constitution.  This bill will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal.  I hope there will be strong bipartisan support for these efforts moving forward.

# # # # #

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2010

Section-By-Section Summary – For Guidance Purposes Only

The Justice for All Act

Enacted in 2004, the Justice for All Act (JFAA) enhanced protections for victims of Federal crimes, provided Federal resources to improve the use of DNA technology to combat crimes, and established safeguards to prevent and reverse wrongful convictions. The legislation reauthorizes and improves many of the programs created by the original law but does not increase authorized funding beyond the levels established in 2004. It includes the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, the Debbie Smith Act, the Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, and the Innocence Protection Act.

Section 2 – Extension of Crime Victims Rights

This section gives crime victims the right to be informed of their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and the Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act of 1990.  Under current law, judges have 72 hours to review writs of mandamus filed by crime victims pursuant to the Crime Victims Rights Act.  This section gives judges, with the consent of the relevant litigants, more time to consider victims’ claims. This section also clears an ambiguity regarding the applicability of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act to victims located in the District of Columbia by clarifying that crime victims in the District may exercise their rights in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia and its corresponding court of appeals.

Section 3 – Reauthorization of Appropriations for Grants for Crime Victims

This section reauthorizes the Crime Victims Legal Assistance Grants and Crime Victims Notification Grants at current levels.

Section 4 – The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program

This section makes several important changes to the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program to ensure efficient collection and processing of DNA evidence by law enforcement and prosecutors and the efficient processing and analysis of that evidence by crime laboratories. The bill adds several new accountability measures and reauthorizes the program at its current level of $151,000,000 per year.

The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program is designed to reduce backlogs in the testing of DNA evidence; however, there is no current legal definition of “backlog.”  A definition is necessary to measure accountability under the program.  This section requires the National Institutes of Justice (NIJ) to define “backlog” for the purposes of DNA evidence collection, processing, and testing.  The definition must take into consideration the different stages at which a backlog may develop, including when evidence is in the possession of law enforcement as well as laboratories. 

This section also requires NIJ to develop practices and protocols for the collection and processing of DNA evidence, including sexual assault evidence, and to provide technical assistance to States and units of local government to implement those practices and protocols.

Under current law, the Debbie Smith Program authorizes grants for DNA testing and analysis by laboratories.  This section adds a new purpose to the program, which would allow funding to go toward reducing backlogs in the collection and processing of DNA evidence, including sexual assault evidence, by law enforcement and prosecutors.  The collection and processing of DNA evidence may include programs to improve evidence tracking and communication between law enforcement, prosecutors, laboratories, courts, defense counsel, and victims within a jurisdiction.  Evidence shows that backlogs in the testing of DNA evidence can often be traced to backlogs in the collection and processing of that evidence by law enforcement before it reaches the crime lab.  This new purpose area will help reduce DNA evidence backlogs at every stage in the process.

Accountability measures for the Debbie Smith Program are strengthened under this section.  Grant recipients will be required to report, and the Department of Justice to publish, statistical information about the size and extent of their DNA backlog, including the backlog as it relates to sexual assault cases. Recipients must also report the specific percentage of the grant funds they allocated to reducing the backlog in sexual assault cases.  Additionally, the Attorney General will collect and publish a list of grant recipients who fail to comply with the reporting provisions required by the grant program and to reduce by fifty percent their grant award for the following year. 

This section also requires the FBI to evaluate its policies related to the use of private labs in the analysis of DNA evidence, including the existing mandatory technical review of all outsourced DNA. The FBI must complete this evaluation within 90 days of the Act’s passage and report the results to Congress no less than 30 days later.

Section 5 – Rape Exam Payments

This section strengthens provisions in the Violence Against Women Act STOP grants that preclude sexual assault victims from paying for the cost of forensic medical exams.  It also clarifies existing language that prohibits states or local governments from covering the cost of forensic exams contingent on victim cooperation with law enforcement.

Section 6 – Additional Reauthorizations

This section reauthorizes the DNA Research and Development Grants, FBI DNA Programs, and DNA Identification of Missing Persons Grants at current levels. 

Section 7 – Paul Coverdell Forensic Sciences Improvement Grants

This section reauthorizes the Paul Coverdell Forensic Sciences Improvement Grants and increases the annual authorization by $15,000,000 per year to a level of $35,000,000 per year.

Section 8 – Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program

This section reauthorizes the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program and increases the annual authorization by $5,000,000 per year to a level of $10,000,000 per year. 

Section 9 – Improving the Quality of Representation in State Capital Cases

This section reauthorizes the Capital Representation Improvement Grants and the Capital Prosecution Improvement Grants and reduces the authorization from $75,000,000 to $50,000,000 per year. It also allows the Attorney General to award grants to units of local government and non-profits, rather than exclusively to States. Additionally, this section allows the Attorney General, upon a showing of good cause, to determine a fair allocation of the funding across the two grant programs.

Section 9 – Post-Conviction DNA Testing

There have been 258 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.  Seventy of those exonerees pleaded guilty to or confessed to the crime they did not commit.  This section eliminates the prohibition on a court granting an individual’s petition for post-conviction DNA testing if that individual had waived his or her right to post-conviction DNA testing as part of a plea agreement.

Under current law, in order for a federal defendant to be granted a new trial based on exculpatory DNA evidence, he or she must establish by compelling evidence that a new trial would result in acquittal or a lower sentence.   For a defendant to be granted a new sentencing based on exculpatory DNA evidence, he or she must prove, by compelling evidence that the evidence would result in the defendant obtaining a lower sentence, and even within those parameters, the defendant can only be granted a resentencing in a case involving the death sentence.  This section requires courts to instead evaluate exculpatory evidence by a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard, and eliminates the requirement that, for re-sentencing purposes, this evidence can only be utilized in a capital case.

This section also relaxes the requirement that states must preserve all biological evidence to obtain grants through the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program.  Instead, states and local governments receiving funding through the program must preserve all biological evidence in cases involving certain crimes of violence.

Section 10 – Incentive Grants to States to Ensure Consideration of Claims of Actual Innocence

The section relaxes the certification requirements regarding biological evidence preservation required of the chief legal officers of states receiving Bloodsworth grants.  The new requirements reflect the reality that there are limits to the extent to which chief legal officers can be held accountable for preservation efforts in jurisdictions beyond their control.

Section 11 – Establishment of National Standards Promulgated by NIJ

The section directs NIJ to promulgate best practices for evidence retention within eighteen months of the bill’s enactment.  It also requires NIJ to assist state, local and tribal governments wishing to adopt the best practices.

Section 9 – Effective Administration of Criminal Justice

This section reinstates a previous requirement of the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program that states develop, and update annually, a strategic plan detailing how grants received under the program will be used to improve the administration of the criminal justice system. This requirement was removed from the Byrne JAG grant application several years ago, but groups representing states and victims have requested that it be reinstated in order to improve the efficient and effective use of criminal justice resources. Under this section, the strategic plan must be formulated in consultation with local governments and all segments of the criminal justice system.   The Attorney General will also be required to make technical assistance available to help states formulate their strategic plans.

The section also requires the Attorney General to provide technical assistance to states and local governments requesting support to meet their Sixth Amendment obligations. It also makes it unlawful for any governmental authority to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives people of their rights to assistance of counsel as protected by the Sixth Amendment.  The provision providing a federal cause of action to enforce this right does not take effect until two years after passage of the bill, though the technical assistance is available immediately.

The bill authorizes $5,000,000 for the Attorney General to carry out the technical assistance required under this section.

# # # # #

Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693