12.06.16

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee Statement Following Final Passage of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act

For more than six years, I have championed the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act to ensure our criminal justice system lives up to our national pledge of “liberty and justice for all.”  As a former prosecutor, I am committed to ensuring our criminal justice system has integrity and the confidence of the public it serves.  From my time on the front lines as a State’s Attorney in Vermont, in Chittenden County, and through the past 15 years I have served as Chairman or Ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, it has become clear to me that our system is deeply flawed.  There is not always justice for all.

I have met many innocent people who were wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit.  I have shared the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, one such man who was falsely convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.  He maintained his innocence, and in 1993 he became the first death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA.  We know the system gets it wrong, and we have a responsibility to improve our criminal justice system.  That is why I joined with Kirk years ago to introduce and enact the Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program.  This was originally part of the Innocence Protection Act enacted in 2000, and it gives defendants like Kirk a chance to prove their innocence. 

To ensure that our justice system gets it right from the beginning, this bill provides the means to improve the quality of indigent defense.  Ensuring good representation for those accused of crimes will mean fewer innocent people behind bars. It is an outrage when an innocent person is wrongly punished, and this injustice is exacerbated when the true culprit remains on the street.  The American people deserve a system that gets it right the first time.

Many Senators in this chamber know the story of my friend Debbie Smith who has become a champion for victims of sexual assault.  She waited six years after being attacked before her rape kit was tested and the culprit was caught.  No one should have to live in fear while their attacker remains free to victimize someone else.  This legislation provides important resources to improve the quality and efficiency of forensic testing while expanding access to underserved populations like those in rural areas. 

It has been my great honor to serve as the most senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee since 1997.  During this time, I have worked with Senators from both sides of the aisle to craft solutions to some of the most significant issues of our time.  I am proud to have partnered with Senator Cornyn on this important legislation, and I hope we can continue to work together in the next Congress to continue to protect all victims and create fairness in our criminal justice system.  As we look forward from this important step, I call on all those who work with me on this important legislation to continue to support efforts to correct costly mistakes in our criminal justice system.

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