05.01.14

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

Last year, the Senate came together to pass meaningful legislation that was supported by victims of violence, law enforcement, and those committed to working to end domestic and sexual abuse.  That bill, the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, had the support of all Senate Democrats and a majority of Senate Republicans. It cleared the Republican House overwhelmingly and it was signed into law one year ago. In a divided Congress, this historic reauthorization was made possible because so many victims and service providers stood together to push for a comprehensive bill.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which I was proud to co-author with Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), strengthens protections on campuses, where far too many students have become victims of devastating violence instead of enjoying the wonderful experience of learning and growth that we all wish for our children. Our bill, which was signed into law last year, ensures that college students are informed of the resources available to them if they are victims of sexual assault or stalking, and of their school's planned response to such crimes. For women like Laura Dunn, these provisions have real meaning. When many skeptics called for a watered down VAWA bill to make it easier to pass, champions like Ms. Dunn, a courageous survivor of campus sexual assault, urged us to stand strong for all victims. More than 200 survivors of campus violence at 176 colleges and universities joined her in an open letter to Congress calling for the passage of the Leahy-Crapo bill. People like her made all the difference in our ability to ultimately pass this important legislation.

One year after its enactment, I am heartened that the Obama Administration has begun to implement the Leahy-Crapo VAWA bill, and that it announced a series of steps that will help colleges and universities meet new requirements contained in the law. This includes stronger reporting requirements and better training for university officials; more coordination between campus police and local law enforcement; and the implementation of privacy policies to protect the identity of victims. I can remember the horrific scenes I witnessed when I was a prosecutor in Vermont. I can also remember that I never asked a victim about their nationality, immigration status, religion, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. As I have said countless times, a victim is a victim is a victim. Providing a victim with the services they need in a safe and private environment is common sense and I am glad the Obama Administration is making the protections Senator Crapo and I fought for a reality for students across the country.

We cannot stop there, however, and we should be doing even more to protect all victims of crime. That is why I urge my fellow senators to support the Justice for All Reauthorization Act.  This comprehensive and bipartisan legislation was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October.  The Justice for All Reauthorization Act protects victims of crime by providing them with the resources they need and enhancing protections for crime victims.  It also helps to prevent and overturn wrongful convictions, and provides law enforcement with the tools and resources necessary to ensure justice for all.

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 rape kits languish in storage.  It also 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 first death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated through the use of DNA evidence. There are certainly others out there like Kirk Bloodsworth now, wrongly convicted, waiting for the day when a DNA test will prove their innocence and set them free.  We must never stop trying to improve our imperfect criminal justice system, to bring closure to cases swiftly but accurately, and to correct mistakes when they happen.

The Justice for All Act reauthorizes 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. 

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act is a bipartisan bill that Senator Cornyn and I introduced nearly one year ago. All Senate Democrats support passage of this bill, and it is even cosponsored by the Minority Leader, Senator McConnell – but it has not passed the Senate because some Senate Republicans object.  In the face of this obstruction, some would have us pick apart pieces of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, with the hope that we can do the other pieces later. To me, to law enforcement, and to countless victims of crime, this is not acceptable.  Just last year, we showed the country it was possible to stand with all victims of domestic and sexual violence when we ignored the critics in the House who tried to divide us.  When they told us we could only protect some victims, we refused to let them pit survivors of injustice against one another.

By remaining unified in the face of such efforts, this divided Congress was able to pass an historic Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act that for the first time provided key protections for college students, tribal women, and members of the LGBT community. This year, we should again stand by all victims of crime and do what is right by passing a comprehensive Justice for All Reauthorization Act.  We should not let the House of Representatives lessen our resolve to reauthorize public safety programs widely supported by crime victims and law enforcement.

I remain steadfast in my resolve to get this done.  I know every Senate Democrat shares this resolve, and I know that law enforcement, civil rights leaders, victims groups and countless others feel the same way. I hope Senate Republicans will join us to pass meaningful legislation that supports all victims of crime and upholds our system of justice. We should stand united for all victims. I urge all senators, and particularly those in the Republican Caucus, to clear the Justice for All Act without further delay.

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