04.10.14

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Urging Passage of The Justice for All Act During National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

 

This week marks the 30th annual National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.  It is a time to recognize victims of crime and their families, and to acknowledge the efforts to help them recover and rebuild their lives in the wake of tragedy.  It is also a time to ask what more we can do to help serve victims of crime and improve our criminal justice system.  We have an opportunity this week to pass a bill that will not just pay lip service to crime victims, but actually impact and improve their lives.  It is time to pass the Justice for All Act.

The Justice for All Act is a bipartisan bill that Senator Cornyn and I introduced nearly one year ago to improve the quality of justice in this country.  It was approved by the Judiciary Committee in October by a unanimous voice vote, and it cleared the Democratic side of the hotline on March 27.  However, it still has not passed the Senate because Senate Republicans object.  For reasons that have not been explained, Republicans have failed to consent to passing this commonsense bill. This is no way to treat victims of crime, especially during a week when we seek to honor them.

The Justice for All Act reauthorizes the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Act, which has provided 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 waited years for her rape kit to be tested.  Although delayed for years, that rape kit test ultimately enabled the perpetrator to be caught.  She and her husband Rob have worked tirelessly to ensure that others will not have the same experience.  I thank Debbie and Rob for their continuing help on this extremely important cause.

The Justice for All Act reauthorization establishes safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions, and enhances protections and legal rights for crime victims.  It is supported by experts in the field and law enforcement, including the National Center for Victims of Crime, the National Center of Police Organizations, and the National District Attorneys Associations.  Yet even during Crime Victims Week, which coincides with Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, Senate Republicans have not yet shown a willingness to clear the important reauthorization. 

Senator Cornyn was on the floor just last week and earlier today expressing his commitment to getting this passed and signed into law. I urge him to lead his caucus to get it through the Senate.  He and I both know that a unanimous voice vote in the Judiciary Committee is uncommon, and happens on only the most uncontroversial and uniformly applauded bills. This is one of those bills, and we need to pass this today.

Senator McConnell is also a cosponsor of this bill.  This effort has been bipartisan from the beginning, and I am proud that we have the Minority Leader and the Minority Whip helping to lead this effort.  Despite the support of the Senate Republican leadership, the bill nonetheless remains stalled. Perhaps it is because the House Republican leadership would rather pass a much narrower bill. I trust that the Senate will stand up for all victims who deserve justice, just as we did when the Senate passed an inclusive Violence Against Women Act reauthorization last year.  

Our bipartisan Senate legislation strengthens the 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 sentenced to death for a heinous crime that he did not commit.  He was the death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated through the use of DNA evidence. 

Since the Justice for All Act was first enacted in 2004, we continue to see cases in which people are found to be innocent after spending years in jail.

Thomas Haynesworth was exonerated in 2011 after spending 27 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, thanks to a grant provided by the Justice for All Act.  He was accused of rape in 1984, and wrongfully convicted, and the real perpetrator in this case went on to rape more than a dozen women.  

It is an outrage when an innocent person is punished, and this injustice is compounded when the true perpetrator remains on the streets, able to commit more crimes.  We are all less safe when the system gets it wrong.

This bill also provides funding for the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant program, which assists laboratories in performing the many forensic tests that are essential to solving crimes and prosecuting offenders. 

I cannot imagine why is there an objection to supporting scientific testing and improving the reliability of criminal convictions.  Every American, including crime victims, is better served when our justice system has the resources it needs to operate effectively.  If there is a person in the Senate who objects, I ask them to come forward and explain that to me, and to the American people.  I would welcome that debate.

The hotline on this bipartisan Justice for All Act reauthorization has been running on the Republican side since March 31, and I have not heard one substantive argument against the merits of this bill.  Police officers, prosecutors, and crime victims agree on the necessity of this bill.  Why can’t we?

The Justice for All Act takes important steps to ensure that all criminal defendants, including those who cannot afford a lawyer, receive effective representation.  Our justice system, including successful prosecution, depends upon effective representation on both sides. 

This is not a time for delay.  This is a time for leadership.  The stakes are too high and crime victims are depending on us to do the right thing.  I urge all Senators, and particularly those in the Republican Caucus, to clear this bill today.

 

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