12.01.16

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

Each morning in this chamber we pledge allegiance to our flag, and we end by declaring that we are “one Nation under God with liberty and justice for all.”  It is not enough to say the words.  It is our obligation to bring meaning to this promise.  Today I hope the Congress will finally take an important step forward by passing the bipartisan Justice for All Reauthorization Act.

I have long championed the Justice for All Act to make our justice system more fair.  Our bill will strengthen indigent defense and expand the rights of crime victims.  It will improve the use of forensic evidence, including rape kits, to provide justice swiftly.  It will help protect the innocent by increasing access to post-conviction DNA testing.  The Senate passed this bipartisan legislation in June, and the House approved a slightly modified version earlier this week.  I am disappointed the House decreased authorizations for many programs I support.  Still, the bill makes important changes and will improve the lives of many of our most vulnerable citizens.  I urge my fellow Senators to consent to its immediate passage.

As a former prosecutor, I am dedicated to ensuring that our criminal justice system has integrity and the confidence of the public it serves. I started out on the front lines as State’s Attorney in Chittenden County, Vermont.  And for the past 20 years I have served as Chairman or Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  During that time 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.  Kirk Bloodsworth was one such young man.  He was just out of the Marines in 1984 when he was falsely convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.  He was nearly executed until DNA evidence proved he was innocent in 1993.  He became the first death row inmate in the United States exonerated by DNA evidence.  But he was not the last.  There were 149 innocent people exonerated just last year, the highest number on record.  Our justice system failed not only these innocent people but also the victims of crime.  We can and we must do more to fix this injustice.

I believe we should eliminate the death penalty entirely because I know the system gets it wrong.  But until we do away with the death penalty, we must improve the integrity of our criminal justice system.  That is why I joined with Kirk years ago to 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.  That should not be too much to ask.

We must also do more to ensure that our justice system gets it right from the beginning and that means improving the quality of indigent defense.  Our system too often fails to provide a lawyer for every person accused of a crime, even if they cannot afford one.  Our Founding Fathers recognized that no system could be fair if accusations by a King or a government went unchallenged.  Without a vigorous defense it is impossible to determine who is actually guilty and who has been wrongly accused.  This legislation requires the Department of Justice to provide technical assistance to States to improve their indigent defense systems, and it ensures that public defenders will have a seat at the table when States determine how to use their Byrne JAG criminal justice funding. 

Improving systems of indigent defense will mean fewer innocent people behind bars.  It is an outrage when an innocent person is wrongly punished, and this injustice is compounded when the true perpetrator remains on the streets, able to commit more crimes.  My brave friend Debbie Smith, a champion for victims of sexual assault, waited six years after being attacked before her rape kit was tested and the perpetrator was caught.  Survivors like Debbie should not have to live in anguish while their attacker remains free.  Our bill provides resources for forensic testing and specifically the creation of tracking systems so that testing can be done more efficiently.  It will also help expand access to forensic exams in rural areas and for underserved populations. 

Sexual assaults must be prevented wherever they occur, including in our nation’s prisons.  That is why I strongly supported the Prison Rape Elimination Act when it was enacted in 2003.  This bill imposes true accountability by withholding federal funds from states who do not implement protections to prevent sexual assaults in our prisons.  It also protects grants designed to provide services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Our legislation also builds on the landmark protections provided for victims of domestic violence in the 2013 Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Act.  Imagine a woman living with an abusive partner in public housing, but her name is not on the lease.  One night he beats her and she calls the police.  The man is arrested and the woman believes she is finally safe.  But then the landlord says she must leave immediately, because the man is being evicted and she has no rights to stay.  The Justice for All Act will allow this woman time to remain there while she either finds another place to live or can demonstrate she is eligible to remain under her own name.  No person should be forced to choose between abuse and a place to live.

And finally, our bill 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.

It has been my great honor to serve as the most senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee since 1997.  During that time I have worked with Senators from both sides of the aisle to craft solutions to some of the most important problems of our time.  I am proud to join with my partner Senator Cornyn on this legislation, and the many advocates who have helped guide our work.  I especially appreciate the work of the Innocence Project, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations, Just Detention International, the National Criminal Justice Association, the National District Attorneys Association, Legal Aid DC, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the Joyful Heart Foundation, and the National Center for Victims of Crime.

As we consider legislation next Congress, we must remember that we have an obligation to look out for all victims and to create fairness in our criminal justice system.  While we made some improvements this year, including passing the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, I am disappointed the Republican-led Congress failed to even allow a vote on bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation despite its strong support.  As we look to the new Congress, I hope those who worked with me on this important issue will continue to support efforts to correct the costly mistakes of mandatory minimum sentences.  I hope that we can again build the same kind of broad, bipartisan consensus in support of all victims of sexual assault and domestic violence that we did last Congress when we passed the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act through the Senate.

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