04.02.14

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

Last week, I called on members of the Senate to come together and support reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, a bipartisan law that increased resources devoted to DNA and other forensic technology, established safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions, and enhanced protections for crime victims.  The bipartisan bill to reauthorize this historic law was reported unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall.  Every Senate Democrat has cleared the way for passage of this important measure, and I hope Senate Republicans will soon follow suit so that we can take one step closer to reauthorizing this law that protects and supports victims of crime.

The programs created by the Justice for All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize them.  The legislation strengthens important rights for crime victims, reauthorizes the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program, seeks to improve the quality of indigent defense, and increases access to post-conviction DNA testing to help protect the innocent. 

The reauthorization legislation also strengthens the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program.  Kirk Bloodsworth was the first person in the United States to be exonerated from a death row crime through the use of DNA evidence.  The program named for Mr. Bloodsworth provides grants to States for testing in those criminal cases – like Mr. Bloodsworth’s – where someone has been convicted but where significant DNA evidence was not tested.  The Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013 expands State access to post-conviction DNA testing funds by restricting the evidence preservation conditions set for this program to felony cases, which is a more attainable goal for States.

This legislation 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.  I know as a former prosecutor that the system only works as it should when each side is well represented by competent and well-trained counsel. 

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. 

We need to continue the bipartisan work that has been done.  During the Judiciary Committee mark-up we unanimously adopted amendments before passing the bill, one from Senator Dianne Feinstein, and one from Senator Jeff Flake.  Both amendments strengthened rights for crime victims, and added to the comprehensive improvements contained in the bill.

I thank Senators Coons, Udall of New Mexico, McConnell, Klobuchar, Franken, Portman, Feinstein, Hatch, Schumer, Landrieu, Burr, Collins, Bennet, and Shaheen for their support as cosponsors of this bill.

I am glad to be partnering with Senator John Cornyn on this legislation. We have done important work in the Judiciary Committee to support law enforcement and victims of crime.  Last week, he and I introduced sweeping legislation to improve the use of forensic evidence in criminal cases.  The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act helps ensure that forensic labs throughout the Nation operate according to the highest standards, and that state and local labs have the resources they need. Both that measure and the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013 are important priorities to support our criminal justice system and law enforcement.

We must stand behind these bipartisan efforts, and I urge Senate Republicans to join all Senate Democrats in supporting passage of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013.

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