Senate Begins Debate On Reauthorizing Landmark Violence Against Women Act

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate is proceeding to debate on legislation authored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to reauthorize the landmark Violence Against Women Act.

Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which reported the legislation to the full Senate for consideration in February.  The legislation is endorsed by more than 1,000 national, state and local organizations, from law enforcement to religious organizations, victim advocates to health professionals.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act would further strengthen and improve programs authorized under the landmark law to assist victims and survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  The reauthorization bill includes an increased focus on sexual assault, including the addition of new purpose areas to support the efforts of sexual assault coalitions working in the states and provisions to help reduce rape kit backlogs.  The administration has endorsed the legislation.

“I said [during the Judiciary Committee’s mark up] and say now that we were willing to go as far as we could to accommodate Senators but that I would not abandon core principles of fairness,” said Leahy.  “I continue to urge all Senators to join together to protect the most vulnerable victims of violence, including battered immigrant women assisting law enforcement, Native American women who suffer in record numbers and those who have traditionally had trouble accessing services.  A victim is a victim is a victim.  They all deserve our attention and the protection and access to services our bill provides.”

Debate will continue on the legislation this week.  Leahy’s full statement, as prepared for delivery, follows.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Opening the Senate Debate of the “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act Of 2011”
April 25, 2012

As Prepared For Delivery

I am pleased that we are able to move directly to this legislation without a cloture vote, which has too often become the norm over the last few years. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act is a bipartisan bill with 61 cosponsors. 

I was encouraged to hear the Majority Leader and the Republican leader yesterday morning discuss moving forward quickly to pass this legislation. I agree with the Majority Leader and do not want to see the bill weakened.  I agree with the Republican leader that there is strong bipartisan support for the Leahy-Crapo bill. I look forward to their working out an agreement that will allow us to consider and expeditiously approve the bill in short order.   I would be happy to help in any way I can to facilitate those discussions and reach agreement on a path forward. 

The bipartisan Violence Against Women Act has been the centerpiece of the Federal Government’s commitment to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The impact of this landmark law has been remarkable. It has provided life-saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of women, children and men. 

I appreciate the bipartisan support this bill has had from the beginning. Senator Crapo and I introduced the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act last year.  We did not move forward to do so until after months of discussions with the staff of the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.  We did our best to accommodate all points of view when we could.  The bill we introduced had several major changes to address concerns of the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee.  For example, we removed a provision that would have incorporated specific guidance from the Department of Education on standards of proof in university disciplinary proceedings.  We also included accountability provisions very similar to those proposed by Senator Grassley for the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and the Second Chance Reauthorization Act. 

We continued our outreach after introduction of the bill and through the hearing and Committee process.  The amendment the Judiciary Committee adopted on February 2 included several additional changes requested by Republican Senators, which are outlined in the Committee report.  Principle among these was the elimination of several provisions that would have offered significant assistance to immigrant victims of domestic and sexual violence. It was difficult to remove those provisions but we earnestly sought compromise and I was encouraged when in our Committee meetings Senator Grassley acknowledged our efforts to reach agreement where we could.

I said then and say now that we were willing to go as far as we could to accommodate Senators but that I would not abandon core principles of fairness.  I continue to urge all Senators to join together to protect the most vulnerable victims of violence, including battered immigrant women assisting law enforcement, Native American women who suffer in record numbers and those who have traditionally had trouble accessing services.  A victim is a victim is a victim.  They all deserve our attention and the protection and access to services our bill provides.

The bill now has 61 cosponsors, including eight Republicans.  Sixteen of the 17 women members of the Senate have joined as cosponsors.  They are among the strongest supporters of our bill and the bill is better for their efforts.

I point to one example.  Senator Klobuchar is one of the two women currently serving on the Judiciary Committee.  She is an active member of the Committee, the chair of our Administrative Oversight and the Courts Subcommittee.  She is also a former prosecutor who understands these matters from that direct experience with cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.  She has spoken often and eloquently about the need for this bill and her support for it.  In addition, the bill includes the provisions she introduced with Senator Hutchison as the Stalkers Act of 2011.  This provision updates the Federal anti-stalking statute to capture more modern forms of communications that perpetrators are now using to stalk their victims. I thank her and Senator Hutchison for their contribution to our bill in that regard.  

After months of consultations we proceeded openly to introduce our bill so that it could be reviewed and improved as the Judiciary Committee proceeded with additional hearings and then in open session to consider it.  That is the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that we need.  There is one purpose and one purpose only for the bill that Senator Crapo and I introduced, and that is to help and protect victims of domestic and sexual violence.  That purpose is reinforced as we turn to this bill during Crime Victims’ Rights Week and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Our bill is based on months of work with survivors, advocates, and law enforcement officers from all across the country and from all political persuasions. This is a bipartisan bill developed in an open, democratic process, and it is responsive to the unmet needs of victims. The New York Times had a column by Dorothy Samuels last Sunday that got it right.  She wrote:  “[T]he provisions respond to real humanitarian and law enforcement needs.” 

When Senator Crapo and I worked to put this legislation together, we purposely avoided proposals that were extreme or divisive and selected only those proposals that law enforcement and survivors and the professionals who work with crime victims every day told us were essential.  That is why every one of these provisions has such widespread support.  Our reauthorization bill is supported by more than 1000 Federal, state, and local organizations.  They include service providers, law enforcement, religious organizations, and many, many more.   

The Administration provided a strong endorsement in its Statement of Administration Policy on Monday.  The Administration appreciates that our bill “targets resources to address today’s most pressing issues.”  As I have said, while we have done a good job on the domestic violence front, sexual assault is where we need to increase our focus and that is what our bill does.  The Administration is fully on board.  The Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General both spoke to these issues last Wednesday at settings in New Orleans and in Washington.  That is what our law enforcement supporters understand, including the National Association of Attorneys General, the National District Attorneys Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association,  the International Association of Chiefs of Police and so many others. To make more of a difference we need to pass this legislation and its provisions against sexual assault. 

I want to thank the advocates in Vermont and, in particular Karen Tronsgard–Scott of the Vermont Network to End Domestic and Sexual Violence and Jane Van Buren with Women Helping Battered Women.  I appreciate the guidance from all across the nation from such organizations as the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, as well as Futures without Violence, Break the Cycle, the National Congress of American Indians, Legal Momentum, the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence and so many others for working with us and helping us get this right.  In particular, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women and the coalition it has maintained has been invaluable in these efforts.  It is working with them that we were able to adjust the allocation of funds to increase needed funding for sexual assault efforts without harming other coordinated efforts.  We reached our understanding working with them, not by picking a number out of a hat or trying to outbid some other proposal.

The Statement of Administration Policy concludes:

“The Administration strongly supports measures in S. 1925 that will bring justice to Native American victims.  Rates of domestic violence against Native American women are now among the highest in the United States.  The bill builds on the Tribal Law and Order Act – which President Obama signed on July 29, 2010—to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of tribal justice systems and will provide additional tools to tribal and Federal prosecutors to address domestic violence in Indian country.  The Administration also supports the important role of the Office on Violence Against women and believes that all victims should have access to critically needed services and protections.”

The provisions in our bill recognizing limited jurisdiction by tribal courts over domestic violence offenses committed by non-Indians against Indian victims on Indian land is intended to help address the epidemic of violence against Native women. It extends only to cases of domestic violence that occur on Indian land against an Indian, and it covers only those defendants with strong ties to the tribe. This provision is supported not only by tribal communities and domestic violence advocates, but also by the Justice Department and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who say they are “very pleased” with the provision and that it will “significantly assist tribal law enforcement in combating violence against Native women.” 

Senator Grassley and I received a letter and analysis this weekend from 50 law professors from around the country who specialize in constitutional law and Indian law.  They conclude that this provision is good policy, necessary and constitutional.

The provision ensuring that services will be available to all victims regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity is supported by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and numerous civil rights and crime victims’ advocates.  I was pleased to see a letter from Cindy Dyer, President Bush’s Director of the Office on Violence Against Women, in which she writes: “As criminal justice professionals our job is to protect the community, but we are not able to do that unless all the tools necessary … are available to all victims of crime.”  She is right.  A victim is a victim is a victim.

The provision adding a limited number of new U visas for immigrant victims of serious crimes who help law enforcement is backed not only by immigrants’ rights organizations, but by the Fraternal Order of Police, who writes that “the expansion of the U visa program will provide incalculable benefits to our citizens and our communities at a negligible cost.”  Our friends in law enforcement are right. 

Now that the Congressional Budget Office has scored that provision, we are prepared to offset the costs that CBO estimates and to work out any other technical problems based on that scoring.

On Tuesday, a Washington Post editorial urged passage of our bipartisan bill noting:

“A comprehensive committee report convincingly details gaps in current programs as identified by law enforcement officers, victim-service providers, judges and health-care professions.  No one—gay or straight, man or woman, legal or undocumented—should be denied protections against domestic abuse or sexual violence.  The proposed changes are by no means radical.  They include a provision that would bar a shelter from turning away a lesbian who has been beaten by her female partner and adjustments in funding formulas to better address the needs of male victims of domestic and sexual violence. 

Some changes, such as increasing the number of temporary visas for battered immigrant women, are supported by law enforcement.  And the need to do more to protect Native American women is supported by a regional survey by University of Oklahoma researchers that showed that three out of five Native American women have been assaulted by their spouses or partners and a nationwide survey that found that one-third of all Native American women will be raped in their lifetime.”

They are improvements that are not only reasonable, but necessary if we are to fulfill our commitment to victims of domestic and sexual violence.  I believe that if Senators of both parties take an honest look at all the provisions in our bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill, they will find them to be common sense measures that we all can support.  Sixty-one Senators have already reached this conclusion.  I hope more will join us and the Senate can promptly pass the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.

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