02.24.16

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the Introduction of the Justice For All Reauthorization Act of 2016

Today, I am proud to introduce the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016 with Senator Cornyn.  The Justice for All Act, originally enacted in 2004, was an unprecedented bipartisan piece of criminal justice legislation.  It has improved many aspects of our criminal justice system, and this reauthorization includes critical updates to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the American justice system.

The bill builds on the work I began in 2000, when I introduced the Innocence Protection Act.  That measure was designed to ensure that defendants receive competent representation in criminal cases and have access to post-conviction DNA testing in those cases where the system got it wrong.  The Innocence Protection Act became a key component of the Justice for All Act, and is reauthorized in the bill we introduce today.

We know our justice system is imperfect and that innocent people are sometimes convicted, and even sentenced to death.  There were 149 people exonerated just last year, the highest number on record. They spent an average of 15 years in prison before their names were cleared.   There have been 337 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States since 1989.  Twenty of them were sentenced to death. 

The first person exonerated from a death row crime by DNA evidence was a man named Kirk Bloodsworth.  Kirk 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.  Now the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program is a cornerstone of the Justice for All Act.  This program provides grants to states for testing in cases like Kirk’s where someone has been convicted, but where significant DNA evidence was not tested. 

This bill expands access to post-conviction DNA testing so that more innocent people will have a chance at the redemption they deserve.  For example, this reauthorization will permit individuals to access DNA testing even if they previously waived their right to testing as part of a guilty plea. This change is critical because we know that people sometimes pled guilty or confess to crimes they did not commit.  In fact, of the 337 people who have been freed based on DNA evidence, 88 falsely confessed or pled guilty.  That is almost 30 percent of DNA exonerations. Had it not been for DNA testing, they would likely still be behind bars, or worse.

The bill also takes steps to encourage prosecutors to search for additional leads when the DNA evidence tested excludes an individual.  Under the legislation, the government must run that DNA through the national database to see if it matches someone else in the system who might be the actual perpetrator.  Unfortunately, this is not always done.  This commonsense measure will increase public safety by getting the true criminals off the street.

Even in cases that do not involve DNA, it is imperative that every criminal defendant, including those who cannot afford a lawyer, receive effective representation.  This bill requires the Department of Justice to assist states in developing a proficient 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.  This helps prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act also increases resources for public forensic laboratories.  Prosecutors and police officers depend on the efficient and accurate testing of evidence to solve cases.  Putting more resources into forensic testing will also help reduce rape kit backlogs and ensure that survivors of this terrible crime are able to see their cases prosecuted and begin to feel safe again. 

This bill further addresses the needs of sexual assault survivors by directing grants to forensic exam programs, prioritizing those that operate in rural areas or provide assistance to underserved populations. Timely access to forensic exams is a critical first step in ensuring perpetrators are held accountable and taken off the streets.  We must also ensure that the evidence collected from these exams in the form of rape kits are processed quickly.  To help with that effort, the bill also provides support for law enforcement to create evidence tracking systems for rape kits, so their processing can be monitored and accounted for. 

Finally, we must ensure that law enforcement and victim services programs have the resources they need to move these cases through our justice system and assist these survivors. 

This bill also strengthens some key provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a bill I strongly supported when it was enacted in 2003.  Specifically, changes imposed by this bill will require that states comply with regulations designed to prevent sexual assaults in our jails and prisons or lose federal grant money.  The Department of Justice will work with the states to assist them, but ultimately states will be penalized if they do not act.  This bill imposes the true accountability required to eradicate this awful crime.

This reauthorization also expands rights for victims of all crime. It builds upon the success of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by making it easier for crime victims to have an interpreter present during court proceedings and to obtain court-ordered restitution.

I firmly believe that improving our criminal justice system is a priority and a place we should not be afraid to invest additional resources. There are parts of this legislation that I would like to see receive more funding, but this bill, like most legislation, is a compromise. As a result, this bill does reduce the total authorized funding under the Justice for All Act, but I believe it does so responsibly. I also believe that many of the changes advanced by this legislation will help states, communities, and the federal government save money in the long term.

The programs created by the Justice for All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize and improve them.  It has been 12 years since this law was updated, and we must work together to address the challenges currently facing our nation’s justice system.

I thank the many law enforcement and criminal justice organizations that have helped to pinpoint the needed improvements that this law attempts to solve and I appreciate their ongoing support in seeing it passed.

Today, we rededicate ourselves to building a criminal justice system in which the innocent remain free, the guilty are punished, and all sides have the resources they need to advance justice.  Americans deserve a criminal justice system which keeps us safe, ensures fairness, and fulfills the promise of our constitution.  This bill will bring us closer to that goal.

I ask unanimous consent that my full statement and a copy of the bill be printed in the Record.

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