03.28.14

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Senate Consideration of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013

I urge members from both sides of the aisle to come together and support passage of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013, an important and bipartisan bill that will improve the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.  This legislation was voted unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 31, 2013.  It is fitting that the full Senate is considering this legislation now, ahead of Crime Victims’ Rights Week. 

This important legislation, which is cosponsored by Senator John Cornyn of Texas, reauthorizes the original Justice for All Act of 2004.  That landmark law took significant steps to improve the quality of justice in this country by increasing the resources devoted to DNA analysis and other forensic science technology, establishing safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions, and enhancing protections for crime victims.  The programs created by the Justice for All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize them. 

We must do more than just reauthorize these vital programs, however. 

The legislation before us strengthens key rights for crime victims, reauthorizes the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program, includes provisions to improve the quality of indigent defense, and increases access to post-conviction DNA testing to protect the innocent.  It also includes new measures to help ensure the effective administration of criminal justice in the states.

The reauthorization strengthens the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program.  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. 

The Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program provides grants to States for testing in cases like Mr. Bloodsworth’s – when someone has been convicted, but significant DNA evidence was not tested.  The reauthorization clarifies the conditions set for this program, so that participating States are required to preserve key evidence, and are given further guidance that will make the program more effective and allow more States to participate.

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013 also takes important steps to ensure that all criminal defendants, including those who cannot afford a lawyer, receive effective representation.  It requires the Department of Justice to assist States in developing an effective and efficient system of indigent defense, and it calls on the States to produce comprehensive plans for their criminal justice systems.  I know from my time as a prosecutor that the justice system only works as it should when each side is well represented by competent and well-trained counsel. The principle that all sides deserve zealous and effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system, and I am glad the legislation before us today embodies this belief.

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 those who commit those crimes. 

It is also important to note that this bill would make all of these improvements while responsibly reducing the total authorized funding under the Justice for All Act.  These changes will help States, communities, and the federal government save money in the long term.

I thank the many law enforcement and criminal justice organizations that have helped to pinpoint the needed improvements that this bill will provide and I appreciate their ongoing support.  I also thank Senators Coons, Udall of New Mexico, McConnell, Klobuchar, Franken, Portman, Feinstein, Hatch, Schumer, Landrieu, Burr, Collins, and Merkley for cosponsoring this critical legislation, and I thank the lead Republican cosponsor, Senator Cornyn, for working with me on this and on broader legislation to improve the use of forensic evidence in criminal cases.

Together we will continue to work toward 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.  Our criminal justice system is not perfect and we are all less safe when the system gets it wrong.  Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system that keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our Constitution.  The Justice for All Reauthorization Act will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal.

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